Eng IV 2nd semester.
Elizabethan Poetry: Part I; Songs
Five members of the Tudor family ruled England from 1485 to 1603. Of those one hundred eighteen years, Queen Elizabeth I ruled for forty-five (1558-1603). During her reign, the religious, political, economic, and intellectual changes that had begun under her grandfather, Henry VII, and her father, Henry VIII, reached a climax. The result was a flourishing of the arts and patriotism. As Queen, Elizabeth not only ruled, but also gloriously represented the spirit of her times. Both she and her people loved and lived life with zest. The Elizabethan Age was one of exuberance and enthusiasm.
The medieval focus on life after death gave way to an Elizabethan emphasis on the here and now. Though still religious, Elizabeth's subjects vigorously pursued the pleasures and benefits of worldly living.
Religion itself had been a source of controversy and struggle in England since the reign of Henry VIII (at right). When the Pope refused to grant Henry a divorce from his Spanish wife, Catherine, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, Henry cut ties with the Church in Rome and established himself as the head of the Anglican Church of England. Thus, Henry VIII introduced the Protestant Reformation, begun in Germany, to England. Though Henry generally maintained a balance between the Protestant and Catholic elements, his successors did not. The power struggle between religions accelerated under Henry's son and immediate successor, Edward VI, and under Mary, Henry's daughter by Catherine and successor to Edward. After Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, took the throne, she definitively established the Anglican Church.
One of the greatest crises England encountered during Elizabeth's reign was an attack by the powerful Spanish navy. In July 1588, Philip II of Spain sent his Invincible Armada to invade England. The Spaniards lost over sixty-three ships and nine thousand men, and Spanish dominion of the seas was ended. England ruled the seas and her spirit of pride and patriotism soared.
The Elizabethan Age was a period of geographical explorations and expansion. Consequently, England emerged as a leader in the European race to build commercial empires. Trade with distant countries provided a new source of wealth to the middle class merchants.
Enjoying the spirit of success, England was an eager recipient of the spirit of "rebirth" or "reawakening" that was influencing the thought of sixteenth-century Europe.
This "rebirth," later labeled by historians as the Renaissance, was sparked by a renewed interest in the classics of ancient Greece and Rome. It also resulted in a burst of creativity in, and cultivation of, the fine arts; in a growth in the spirit of individualism; in an expansion of intellectual thought; and in a new insight into the purpose and significance of the human person.
The Renaissance emphasis on the magnificence and wonder of the individual person, as well as of the surrounding world, encouraged Elizabethans to consider life as more than a process of waiting for life after death. They believed that life was exciting and beautiful and should be enjoyed immediately. Shakespeare's Hamlet exclaims, "What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable."
The Renaissance ideal expanded the concept of the individual to include all aspects—spiritual, rational, emotional, and physical—of the human personality. The Elizabethan exuberance, therefore, was a reflection of a seemingly limitless desire to know, to do, and to be.
The English literature of the Renaissance offers ample proof of the Elizabethan respect for life and beauty, wherever it may be found. In this unit, you will read and study the songs and sonnets of the poets. You will examine the development of the English drama and read one of Shakespeare's plays. Finally, you will analyze and criticize the play you have read.
Elizabethan poetry offers a variety of thoughts in words and rhythms that are pleasing to hear. The ease with which you may enjoy this literature could lead you to the mistaken conclusion that the writer's task is an easy one. In this section, you will analyze some of the devices the writer must use to create poetry and prose that are melodious and meaningful. Your familiarity with these devices, in turn, will aid you in interpreting what you read.
The exuberance of the Elizabethan Age often expressed itself in songs, some spontaneous and others carefully designed. The development of musical Instruments such as the virginal and viola da gamba complemented this impulse to sing. Nearly everyone in Elizabethan times could sing or play a musical instrument. In 1577, Richard Tottel published the first collection of songs and lyrics under the title Songs and Sonnets. This book, however, usually is called Tottel's Miscellany. Similar songbooks soon appeared, some with titles such as The Paradise of Dainty Devices and The Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions. Like these titles, many of the Elizabethan songs were decorative and elaborate; others, however, were clear and simple.
Elizabethan songs often alluded to Greek mythology. Such references are a natural way for Renaissance songwriters to express their admiration of classical times. In the poem "The Triumph of Charis" the poet used Charis as his subject. In Greek mythology, Charis is the personification of beauty and charm.
Figures of Speech
Personification is a figure of speech by which the author gives human forms and traits to something that is not human (inanimate object, animal, abstraction). Poets use personification to help sharpen the reader's interest and understanding.
In "Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes," Thomas Dekker uses personification in the first and second lines: "Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,/ Smiles awake you when you rise."
If you thought that the "Song" from Cymbeline was the least simple and clear, your response was well founded. In that song, William Shakespeare uses an allusion, a figure of speech that can add a touch of sophistication. An allusion is a reference, direct or indirect, to a well-known literary, scriptural, or historical event or person. In "Song" from Cymbeline, Shakespeare refers to Phoebus, also known as Phoebus Apollo, the sun god of the ancient Greeks. To better understand the world around them, the Greeks frequently explained a natural-but still mysterious-phenomenon, such as the sun, by equating it with a god. In turn, to better understand this god, they personified him. Thus, the sun and the god who represented it are humanized. Shakespeare referred to this sun god when he spoke of Phoebus, as a person who "gins arise" to start the day.
In his effort to involve the reader, the poet often uses imagery; that is, he uses clear, concrete details that appeal to the reader's senses. An image is sometimes defined in literature classes as a "word picture." More exactly, an image is a word or phrase that encourages the reader to hear, touch, smell, taste, and see the poet's subjects.
In "Song" from Cymbeline, Shakespeare helps the reader to see the flowers by showing the shape (cup-shaped) of some and color (golden) of others.
Elizabethan poets frequently used an elaborate and exaggerated image called a conceit. In this figure of speech, the writer makes a comparison between two things that are normally considered very dissimilar.
Poets and songwriters often use alliteration to enhance the sound, and therefore the meaning, of their words. Alliteration is the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginnings of successive or closely associated words or accented syllables.
In "Song" from Much Ado About Nothing,, Shakespeare used alliteration when he repeated the d sound in the lines:
"Sing no more ditties, sing no moe / Of dumps so dull and heavy . . . "
Shakespeare also used alliteration in "Ariel's Song" from The Tempest.
While reading this song, keep in mind that the elfin sprite, Ariel, is singing a song to Prince Ferdinand to tell him that his father had drowned.
Elizabethan Poetry: Part II; Sonnets
Lyric poetry is highly subjective. It expresses the feeling or attitude of the poet. The sonnet is a specialized type of lyric poetry that was popular in Elizabethan England.
The sonnet had its origin in Italy (the word means "little song" in Italian) where it had been perfected by the poet Petrarch. Introduced into England in the early sixteenth century by Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey, the sonnet soon became a literary fashion.
Sir Philip Sidney
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) was a poet, critic, scholar, diplomat, courtier, and soldier. He offers an example of the ideal Renaissance man. At 32, Sidney took part in a military expedition to Holland. He was fatally wounded during a skirmish there, and, according to a traditional story, he offered his own bottle of water to another dying man because he believed the soldier's need was greater than his own. He died as he had lived: as a gentleman.
With his Astrophel and Stella, Sidney sparked the popularity of writing sonnet sequences. He addressed his sequence to Penelope Devereux; but gave his lady a name taken from Greek and Roman literature, as did some of the other Elizabethan poets. "Stella" means star; "Astrophel'' means star-lover. Like most other Elizabethan sonnet sequences, Astrophel and Stella focuses on the poet's love for a beautiful woman. The sonnets you will read are two of the 108 sonnets in Astrophel and Stella.
Elizabethan Poetry: Part III; Sonnets
Considered one of the greatest English poets, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)was the successor to Chaucer in the development of English poetry. After his graduation from Cambridge, Spenser spent four years in the household of the Earl of Leicester, Philip Sidney's uncle and a favorite courtier of Queen Elizabeth. Then he accepted a government assignment in Ireland, where he remained until shortly before his death.
Spenser's most famous work is The Faerie Queen, the longest poem in the English language. The "Faerie Queen" of the poem is Gloriana, a symbol of Queen Elizabeth to whom he dedicated this masterpiece.
The name of Spenser's sonnet sequence is Amoretti ("Little Loves"). Spenser's sonnets sprang from a real, personal love for Elizabeth Boyle, his future wife.
Spenser wrote in a quaint and archaic language; therefore, his poetry is often reprinted in Elizabethan spelling to give a true representation of his style. You should have no trouble understanding the sonnets if you pronounce the words as they are spelled and keep in mind that a u is used as a w or a v.
The most widely known Elizabethan writer, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), wrote one hundred fifty-four sonnets. These sonnets may be divided into two groups: the first group (Sonnets 1-126) he addressed to a dear friend, a young man of noble birth; the second group (Sonnets 126-152) he addressed to an unkind "Dark Lady" whom the poet loved in spite of her unworthiness. The last two sonnets do not belong to either group. Although friendship and love are the general themes, the sonnets offer a wide range of related themes and moods. Shakespeare frequently considered the destruction caused by the passing of time and the poet's power to immortalize beauty and love in his verse.
John Donne (1573-1631) is a poet whose work clearly shows the changes in his own approach to life. John Donne's early poetry reflected his youthful quest for worldly pleasures. His later writings reflected his own search for spiritual satisfaction.
Unlike the sonnets of earlier Renaissance poets, Donne's sonnets offer an exercise in religious meditation, and as such, help form a bridge between the poetry of the Renaissance and that of the seventeenth century.
Theatre in England
When you attend a play today, whether a class play or a professional production of Hamlet, you are probably comfortable in the familiar theater environment. You sit in a rectangular auditorium and the actors perform on a picture-frame stage is recessed into the wall and hidden from view until the play begins. Before the curtain rises, you read the program and become familiar with the characters, the actors, the acts, and the scenes. During the performance, you are aware not only of the onstage actions and words but also of costumes, scenery, and shades and strengths of lighting. At the play's end, you applaud in appreciation of the entertainment you have enjoyed.
The theater that you attend today is unlike the earliest English dramatic presentations, yet it is the result of a slow, and generally logical, growth of English drama.
The origins of English drama are the church plays of the Middle Ages. These plays were a part or an extension of the church service. Their original purpose was to help the uneducated congregation understand the Latin masses (i.e., the readings of scripture were acted out so that those who could not understand the language could still get the meaning). The lines of the plays, in their earliest form, were chanted or sung. Eventually, the plays became so elaborate and so humorous that they were no longer appropriate for this setting, and were therefore, transferred outdoors. Once outside, both the plays and the audiences lost more and more of their formality. Latin gave way to the native language. Plays grew more humorous and lighthearted, and audiences became more rambunctious; eventually, churches forbade the productions.
The plays found new support from the town authorities who used the trade guilds as dramatic companies. Guildsmen provided money for costumes, stage properties, and actors' wages. The plays came to be called mystery plays. Although secularized in production, the plays were based on the Bible. The plays were performed in a cycle, a series of short plays that formed one long narrative.
Sometimes the individual plays within the cycle were performed on fixed stages or stations, and the crowds moved from station to station to see the entire cycle. Usually, however, individual plays were performed on separate wagons that moved to the spectators who were gathered at various predetermined locations in the city. Moving in succession, the wagons brought the entire cycle to the waiting crowds. These wagons were called pageants. The design of a pageant usually reflected its purpose and relationship to a specific guild.
Another dramatic form of medieval England was the miracle play. Although similar to the mystery plays, the miracle plays were based on the lives of the saints.
Developed in the Late Middle Ages, the morality play was a dramatized allegory. In it, abstract virtues and vices—like mercy and shame—were personified. The most famous morality play is Everyman, in which Everyman, who represents all people, receives a summons from Death.
The interlude is a dramatic form that is considered a transition from medieval morality plays to Elizabethan drama. The original definition of an interlude is unknown, but it is believed to have begun during the reign of Henry VIII as a brief skit between the courses of a banquet. The word ultimately suggested a play brief enough to be presented between events of a dramatic performance, entertainment, or feast.
Court interludes were realistic and humorous and intended primarily to amuse. John Heywood was the best-known writer of interludes; his most famous one is The Four P's. This interlude presents a debate among a Palmer, a Pardoner, and a Pothecary. A Pedlar acts as a judge to determine who can tell the biggest lie. The Palmer wins when he claims that he never saw a woman lose her temper. (A palmer was a type of religious pilgrim; a pardoner sold indulgences; a pothecary was an early pharmacist; and a pedlar, now spelled peddler, was a traveling salesperson.)
Some of the interludes both developed from and resembled morality plays. The purpose of these educational interludes was to teach a moral.
Everyday details and a realistic approach were characteristics of the interlude. Although following the allegorical pattern of the morality plays, the interlude began the move away from personifications of abstracts toward portrayal of individual characters. Most importantly, the court interludes strongly suggested that comic elements that simply amuse and do not instruct had recognizable value.
The first Elizabethan playhouses resembled the inn yards. These early theaters were eight-sided buildings with an unroofed yard in front of the stage and two or three tiers of covered galleries lining the walls. The "groundlings," who paid one penny, occupied the open yard. Known also as the "stinkards," the groundlings were a loud, raucous bunch. The more sophisticated people could spend another penny and get a seat in one of the galleries.
The Elizabethan playhouses transformed the crude platform of the inn yards into a permanent, three-sided stage that jutted almost halfway out into the theater. This physical closeness between the actors and their audience encouraged the audience to get emotionally involved in the action rather than to just sit and watch. In fact, the groundlings sometimes got physically involved. Depending on their response to specific actions or characters, the groundlings would hiss, boo, applaud, throw vegetables and fruits, or even jump onto the edge of the stage. An Elizabethan audience was a lively, but attentive, one.
The Elizabethan stage had no front curtain to mark the ends of acts and scenes. Nor did playgoers receive printed programs that outlined the time and place of each scene. The stage was usually bare. The scenes and setting depended primarily on the playwright's descriptions—through the words of his characters—and the audience's imagination. A curtained area at the rear of the stage served as a tomb, a tent, or any form of inner room or secluded area. Balconies, one directly above the curtained area and others on the sides of the stage, represented elevated places. A trapdoor in the stage provided an entrance for ghosts and evil spirits from the underworld. A similar trapdoor in the canopy over the stage, called the "heavens," provided a way to lower angels and good spirits on ropes. Neither the stage nor the theater used any artificial lighting. Depending entirely on natural light, the plays had to be performed in the afternoon.
The first English playhouse was built in 1576 by the Elizabethan actor James Burbage. It was simply called "The Theatre." Most people associate William Shakespeare with the playhouse named the Globe. Built in 1599, the Globe was the most impressive theater of its time. Shakespeare's greatest plays, including Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, were first performed in the Globe.
Women had no part in Elizabethan plays. Boys, frequently choirboys, performed all the women's roles. Some of these youths were excellent on stage, and the Elizabethan audience was seemingly content with the absence of actresses.
Actors, popular though they were, did not have a favorable reputation. Classified by some local laws as vagabonds, actors had to seek means to protect themselves from punishments imposed on such persons. Some local authorities also persisted in efforts to close down the theaters. Thus, the actors formed groups or companies that were organized under the patronage of some member of the nobility who could and would protect their interests. In spite of their low social standing, actors provided one of the favorite forms of entertainment at court. To perform at court by royal command was one of the greatest honors a company could enjoy.
Although the scenery of an Elizabethan theater was scanty, costuming was plentiful and extravagant. Because the jutting stage brought the actor physically so close to his audience, he wore the best and most colorful of materials.
Appropriate costuming helps the audience to identify characters. Elizabethan costuming, however, was frequently anachronistic. The acting companies were not overly concerned about duplicating historical dress. In an Elizabethan production of Julius Caesar, Antony and Brutus may have appeared in Roman robes, or, more likely, could have worn the clothes of Renaissance noblemen. Such incongruities did not disturb the audience.
The characters and plots of Elizabethan plays reflected the Renaissance belief that individual human beings were appropriate and exciting subjects for close examination. The Elizabethan plays were not copies of the medieval personifications of a single personality trait, such as justice or greed, involved in a single, simplified conflict for the possession of souls. Instead, Elizabethan drama discarded the one-dimensional characters of morality plays and portrayed real-life men and women involved in real-life conflicts. The Elizabethan audiences saw characters who were strong one minute and weak the next; they saw characters who struggled to learn the significance of their existence. The Elizabethan audiences saw people on stage who were much like themselves. This fascinating approach to drama did not lack for writers. Many playwrights were eager to create lifelike characters. One of the finest, and definitely the best known, of these playwrights is William Shakespeare.
The Elizabethan theater was not long-lived. In the middle of the seventeenth century, all playhouses were closed by demand of the Puritans. When they reopened at the end of the seventeenth century, they were drastically changed. The building itself was rectangular and roofed. The audiences saw for the first time artificial lighting, movable scenery, and women on stage. The stage no longer jutted into the audience area but instead receded into the wall. This new theater more closely resembled the theater of today than it did that of the Elizabethan Age
In a famous essay on drama, John Dryden, a seventeenth-century English poet, dramatist, and critic, said this of Shakespeare:
He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still [always] present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily; when he describes anything, you more than see it, you feel it too.
To make the reader feel is the highest goal of the creative writer. Only a person who knows and understands the human spirit can achieve it.
Shakespeare is probably the most widely read author in all English literature. Very little is known about him. The most reliable facts about Shakespeare are the recorded dates of important events in his life.
Shakespeare was born in 1564 at Stratford-on-Avon. His birth date is not known but is assumed to be April 23. He was the son of John Shakespeare, a glove-maker and tradesman, and Mary Arden, a woman of good background.
Presumably, Shakespeare attended the well-esteemed local grammar school and there learned Latin, some Greek, and read the works of Latin playwrights.
At eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was seven or eight years older than he. Their first child, Susanna, was born in 1583. Two years later, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. Hamnet died in childhood.
No record exists of Shakespeare's activities between 1585 and 1592. Some legends say that he taught school. Very probably, he left Stratford in 1585 and went to London, perhaps to begin his apprenticeship as an actor. By 1592, he was established enough in London to be the target of a public, written attack by a seemingly jealous playwright, Robert Greene.
By 1594, Shakespeare was both an actor and playwright with the company known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Popular at Elizabeth's court, the Lord Chamberlain's Men outlived the Queen and became known as the King's Men under the patronage of her successor, James I. Shakespeare was a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain's Company and, therefore, in the profits of its successful theater, the Globe. In addition, he made money—though not much—as an actor and from the sale of his plays to the company. By 1597, Shakespeare was wealthy enough to purchase New Place, the second largest house in Stratford. While Shakespeare's wife and children lived in New Place, Shakespeare continued to work (write, memorize, rehearse, act, manage the theater, and train actors) in London. Shakespeare's father died in 1601, the same year in which Hamlet was written. His mother died in 1607. Susanna was married in 1607 and Judith in 1616. In 1611, Shakespeare permanently retired to Stratford, though he continued to visit London. On March 25, 1616, he wrote his will. William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. His wife, Ann, died on August 6, 1623.
Scholars generally agree that Shakespeare wrote 38 plays. The three broad categories for his plays are comedies, histories, and tragedies. Comedies appear throughout his career. The earlier comedies, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream and Love's Labour's Lost, are light-hearted and filled with elaborate word play. The later comedies, such as All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, are known as his "dark comedies." Shakespeare's history, or chronicle, plays were about the past kings of England—Henry IV, V, and VI; Richard II and III and King John—and were written in the last decade of the sixteenth century when patriotic interest in the past was high. The period of Shakespeare's tragedies began with Julius Caesar, written at the turn of the century. The first decade of the seventeenth century saw the full flourish of his great tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Among Shakespeare's major tragedies with which you may be familiar, Romeo and Juliet was written earlier in 1596.
The last few of Shakespeare's plays, probably written at Stratford, are sometimes described as comedies but possess qualities of both tragedy and comedy. They are lighthearted and yet serious, imaginatively fanciful and yet thoughtfully symbolic. These plays include Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. Shakespeare's last play was a history play, Henry VIII, published in 1613. Scholars generally considered it an inferior work and have some doubt that it was actually his work.
Enthusiastically interested in people, sharply aware of their thoughts and motivations, and expert at writing words that made them truly alive, Shakespeare was a playwright for people of all times. Although this universal appeal has won Shakespeare fame as a dramatist, Shakespeare was also a master poet.
Shakespeare's first two published poems were long narratives: Venus and Adonis and Lucrece. He wrote these poems between June 1592, and April 1594, when London theaters were closed because of the plague. Between 1593 and 1601, Shakespeare composed his series of 154 sonnets.
Other publications attributed to Shakespeare are The Passionate Pilgrim, a volume of twenty poems; The Phoenix and the Turtle, a 67-line poem; and A Lover's Complaint, a 329-line poem. Some scholars maintain that Shakespeare wrote only five of the twenty Pilgrim poems, and not all agree that A Lover's Complaint is Shakespeare's work.
Students are sometimes surprised to learn that Shakespeare's language is classified as Modern English. They often feel that his language is almost foreign. Indeed, reading Shakespeare is not necessarily easy, nor should it be done rapidly. A close examination, however, will show that although his vocabulary is sometimes puzzling, his grammar and spelling differ very little from their twentieth-century counterparts. You do not need a translation to read Shakespeare. You would need a translation to read Old English (Anglo-Saxon). Although you may be able to grasp Middle English (Medieval English), you would probably find a translation a welcome relief.
The emergence of an increasingly standardized English language marks the beginning of the Modern English Period (about 1500). Before the process of standardization, the transmission of language depended on oral exchange of various dialects and the time-consuming copying of manuscripts. As a result, language suffered from unavoidable inconsistencies. One of the major contributions toward a uniform English language was the introduction of the printing press by William Caxton in 1476. By Shakespeare's time, movable type made possible the relatively rapid circulation of thousands of identical copies of a book or play. Equally significant, opportunity for education had spread, which allowed more people to read the books that were available.
The fact that large numbers of people could see a consistency in written language and the fact that Caxton and other London printers employed only one of the many dialects in their publications helped to standardize the previous hodgepodge of spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. At the same time, improved transportation brought more people to the major cities. This migration brought about more standardized pronunciations. Many people, too, were aware that dialect could be a social class barrier and began to cultivate the refined speech of the upper class.
While the language of the Elizabethan Age was becoming less flexible and confusing, it was also expanding. During the Renaissance, thousands of words were introduced through the works of scholars and other writers. Many of these words were borrowed from other languages; some were simply created. Many of the borrowed words were from Greek and Latin, a logical result of the Renaissance interest in the ancient classics. Likewise, words borrowed from a variety of places around the world reflect the Renaissance desire for intellectual and geographical expansion and its resulting exchange of words and ideas.
Although you will not need a translation to read Shakespeare, you will need to pay careful attention to all footnotes and notations given in the edition you choose. Since Shakespeare's day, new words have entered the language; others have become obsolete. (If you looked up these obsolete words in today's dictionary, you would find the word archaic or the abbreviation Obs. in brackets to indicate that these words are no longer used.) Finally, some words remain, but have changed their meaning.
Hamlet: Act I, i-ii
Hamlet is one of William Shakespeare's most famous plays. In fact, you may be more familiar with it than you realize. If you have ever said, "Something's rotten in Denmark" or "He has a method in his madness" you were actually paraphrasing lines from Hamlet. Numerous quotations from the play provide the source for popular clichés today.
The complete title of the play is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Different ages have had different interpretations of the term tragedy, but most agree on the basic definition that a tragedy is a serious play with an unhappy ending. This definition may be extended to include three characteristics. First, a tragedy ends in an unhappy catastrophe, usually with the death or some other form of destruction of the hero or heroine. Second, this final disaster is neither contrived nor an accident; instead it is the inevitable result of previous events and conflicts. Finally, this entire account of conflicts culminating in catastrophe must be regarded by both the playwright and the audience as significant and serious.
The purpose of tragedy, however, is not to depress the audience. On the contrary, tragedy intends to arouse the emotions of pity and fear and therefore to produce in the audience a catharsis, or purgation, of these emotions. The problems examined in a tragedy are universal ones—they are problems of all people, everywhere. As members of the audience feel with the suffering hero and share in his fear, they become emptied of pity and fear; at the play's end, they should be ready to begin anew their own lives with a sense of calm, a sense of emotional understanding.
During the Elizabethan Age, the theory of tragedy emphasized the idea that the downfall of the hero was caused by a personal error or character flaw. This error could be the result of bad judgment, inherited weakness, or many other causes. Ultimately, therefore, the catastrophe resulted not from the hero's intentional wrongdoing or even from forces outside himself, but from a flaw in his character. This flaw is called the tragic flaw. As you read Hamlet, you will be able to develop more fully a definition of Shakespeare's presentation of tragedy.
Hamlet is the son and namesake of a medieval king of Denmark. When the play opens, Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, is dead. The new king is not young Hamlet but rather the dead king's brother, Claudius. The setting of the first scene is the guard post in front of the king's castle at Elsinore, a Danish seaport.
In order to help you understand the text better, look up the following words and keep them in mind while reading Act I, scene i: apparition, assail, portentous, and invulnerable.
The medieval characters in this play believe in ghosts, as did many people in Shakespeare's audience. A ghost, however, always presented a problem. The persons who saw it had to determine its nature and purpose. Some accepted theories were that a ghost may be simply a trick of one's mind; that it may be a spirit returning to complete a task left unfinished at death; that it may be a blessed spirit who returns with divine permission; or that it may be an evil spirit—a devil—returning in the form of a person already dead.
The setting of the next scene (Act I, scene ii) is the following day in one of the staterooms of Elsinore Castle. The scene opens with Claudius's speech to members of his court in which he touches on issues related to Gertrude, Fortinbras, Laertes, and Hamlet.
Medieval church law forbade a man to marry his dead brother's wife. In Act I, scene ii, therefore, Claudius must explain his actions. Indeed, he delivers a fine speech to convince his court that his hasty marriage to Gertrude was motivated by a sense of public duty. Hamlet, however, remains unconvinced and unconsoled. He is disgusted and disillusioned by the marriage.
Shakespeare used several dramatic techniques in this scene to give the audience or reader an insight into Hamlet's general state of mind. One of them is the pun. A pun is a play on words that sound alike but have different meanings. Frequently when people pun today, they are trying to be funny; and perhaps just as frequently, "the audience" regards the pun as only slightly humorous, or less. For example, if a sign saying, "alms for the pour" were attached to a small saucer and strategically placed next to the coffee pot in the faculty lounge, probably more than one teacher would groan, and not just because of the coins he or she should drop in the saucer to pay for a cup of coffee.
The Elizabethans, however, used puns for serious as well as comic purposes. When Claudius calls Hamlet "my cousin" and "my son," Hamlet responds with "A little more than kin, and less than kind." He plays on the word kin, which means relatives or family; in Shakespeare's day "kind" could mean kinship. Hamlet bitterly implies that he and Claudius are more than kin for they are doubly related—nephew/uncle and stepson/stepfather—but they do not share the love and kindness that normally exists in kinship. Claudius did not hear this pun because Hamlet said it in an aside; that is, Hamlet turned his head to the audience when he spoke so that his words were heard only by the audience and not by the characters on stage.
Another method that Shakespeare used to probe Hamlet's thoughts is a soliloquy, a technique in which a character talks aloud to himself while he is alone, or believes he is alone, on stage. Hamlet's soliloquy in Scene 2 begins with the line "O that this too too solid flesh would melt," and continues to reveal his innermost feelings. Because Hamlet's flesh will not melt, he wishes God had not "fixed his canon [law] 'gainst self-slaughter [suicide]!"
Hamlet: Act I, III-V
The next scene—Act I, scene iii—takes place on the same day in Polonius's quarters of Elsinore Castle. This scene is full of "advice." Laertes gives advice to Ophelia. Polonius gives advice to both of his children.
In order to help you understand the text better, look up the following words and keep them in mind while reading Act I, scene iii: libertine, precept, and beguile.
This third scene of Act I gives a clearer insight into the character of Polonius. Although his pompous performance is humorous, the effect of his actions is far from funny. Polonius is a conceited, foolish, old man.
In the next scene, Act I, scene iv, Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus meet at midnight at the guard's post to wait for the Ghost. In scene v, the Ghost leads Hamlet away from the others and speaks to him.
In scene iv, Hamlet sees the Ghost for the first time and expresses his uncertainty about whether it is a good or evil spirit. It may be a "spirit of health or goblin damned," it may bring "airs from heaven or blasts from hells," its intents may be "wicked or charitable." Hamlet, however, does follow the Ghost. When they are alone, in scene v, the Ghost reveals that it is the true spirit of Hamlet's father. Hamlet is eager to believe the Ghost but is troubled by a suspicion that it may have come from hell.
The first four scenes of Act I of Hamlet provide the exposition, or introductory material, of the tragedy. These scenes give the time and place of the action, introduce characters and situations, set the tone, and give other information necessary to an understanding of the play.
Scene v contains the exciting force, the incident that starts the conflict, or struggle, between two opposing interests. In scene v, the exciting force is the Ghost's appearance to Hamlet. Hereafter, Hamlet and Claudius will be in direct opposition. The major conflict of this tragedy, therefore, is set into action.
Hamlet: Act II
The second act develops the major conflict between Hamlet and Claudius as well as other minor, but important, conflicts. The first scene of this act provides an even better insight into Polonius's personality.
In order to help you understand the text better, look up the following word and keep it in mind while reading Act II, scene i: doublet.
In this first scene of Act II, Polonius tells Reynaldo to speak with other Danes at the University in Paris and to imply that Laertes is leading a wild and immoral life. When Reynaldo says that this implication will discredit Laertes, Polonius explains that this method is an excellent way to find out the truth. The Danes' agreement or disagreement with Reynaldo's suggestions about Laertes will be an indication of Laertes' actual behavior. Polonius sums up this method when he says, "And thus do we of wisdom and of reach... By indirections find directions out."
At the opening of the next scene (Act II, scene ii) both Claudius and Gertrude, for differing reasons, express concern over the "too-much-changed" Hamlet.
In order to help you understand the text better, look up the following words and keep them in mind while reading Act II, scene ii: glean, expostulate, arras, and visage.
Polonius's speeches to the King and Queen in the scene you just read reveal more of his pompousness and conceit. He says that "brevity is the soul of wit [wisdom]," but he goes on to be anything but brief. He seemingly likes to hear himself talk. The Queen, who is truly disturbed by Hamlet's peculiar behavior, interrupts Polonius and asks for "more matter [information] with less art [fancy talk]."
This scene offers evidence that Hamlet is not actually mad. He is, instead, putting on the "antic" disposition he spoke of in Act I.
When Polonius is alone with Hamlet, he tries to speak with him, but only becomes more convinced of Hamlet's mental imbalance and his own (Polonius's) explanation of it. Actually, everything Hamlet says to Polonius is an intentional and satirical ridicule of him. Even Polonius admits, "Though this be madness, yet there is method [sense; logic] in't." When Polonius exits, Hamlet exclaims "These tedious old fools."
Hamlet's conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, likewise, indicates that he is in control of what he says and does. In fact, Hamlet, although he does not trust them, tells them. "I am but north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." These lines are usually interpreted to mean that Hamlet is only mad when he wants to be.
Act II provides most of the rising action of the tragedy. In the rising action, the hero usually gains ascendancy or domination, over his opponent. In Act II, Scene ii, Hamlet is in ascendancy because he knows the King is a murderer and could expose him. On the other hand, Claudius, though cautious, is not certain of what or how much Hamlet knows.
Conflict, as stated earlier, is the struggle or tension between two forces. One of those forces is usually human or, if it is an animal, thing, or abstraction, is treated as a person. The opposing force may be another person, nature, society, or the person himself. If the opposing force is the character himself, the conflict is internal. If the opposing force is outside the character, it is external.
Seldom does a tragedy build on only one conflict. Certainly, Shakespeare relied on more than one. His insight into human nature could not allow him to do otherwise. Life, as most people live it, is a complex of interacting conflicts. Thus, Shakespearean tragedies interweave several conflicts throughout, each in some way related to the major one.
Hamlet: Act III
this act, the tension between Hamlet and Claudius will reach a turning point. As scene i opens, Claudius reveals his uneasiness about Hamlet and his actions.
In this first scene of Act III, Claudius admits his guilt to the audience. When Polonius prepares Ophelia for her meeting with Hamlet, he tells her to pretend to be reading a book of devotions. Polonius then adds, "We are oft to blame in this... that with devotion's visage [appearance] / And pious action we do sugar o'er [hide] / the devil himself." Claudius, in an aside, exclaims, "O, 'tis too true! / How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!" The King then briefly speaks of the ugliness of his "deed," and concludes, "O heavy burden!"
Hamlet delivers his third soliloquy in this scene. In the first soliloquy, he was depressed and laments his religious opposition to "self-slaughter." In the second one, he determinedly decided to take action that would lead to the revenge of his father's death. In this third soliloquy, Hamlet is once again melancholy. He begins, "To be, or not to be, that is the question... " and goes on to contemplate seriously the possibility of suicide. He cannot, however, shake his conscience. He knows suicide is against his religion, so he cannot end his life. At the end of this soliloquy, Hamlet says, " ...the native here of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." Perhaps Hamlet is trying to find one more excuse to explain why he has not yet obeyed the Ghost's command to take revenge. If so, his excuse this time would be that he thinks too much and never gets around to taking action.
In his conversation with Ophelia, Hamlet seemingly plays the part of the madman again. He insults the innocent Ophelia and verbally attacks women in general. Obviously, he cannot forget nor, seemingly, forgive his mother for her unfaithfulness to his father. In Act I, he had declared, "Frailty, thy name is woman!" He still believes that. Shakespeare does not indicate whether Hamlet knows that Claudius and Polonius are eavesdropping on his conversation with Ophelia.
In the next scene (Act III, scene ii), the play is presented and proves to be "the thing" wherein Hamlet catches the "conscience of the King."
reveals more of Hamlet's attitudes toward his friends. Early in the scene, he praises Horatio for his even temperament. Unlike Hamlet, Horatio can accept "Fortune's buffets and rewards" with emotional balance and self-control. Hamlet admires him for this even temperament. Hamlet shows complete trust in Horatio by telling him of his father's murder and by asking him to watch the King during the play. Hamlet expresses contempt for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his so-called friends. He knows that they are loyal to Claudius and not to him. After they ask him, once again, the cause of his "distemper," Hamlet tries to make Guildenstern play the recorder, a flute-like instrument. When Guildenstern insists that he cannot play. Hamlet asks him why he tries to play upon Hamlet and sound him out (find out his secrets) when he (Guildenstern) cannot even play the simple recorder.
In the next scene (Act III, scene iii), Hamlet finally gets the chance he has been waiting for, but he does not use it.
Although not all agree, a significant number of drama critics believe that the climax of Hamlet occurs in the scene you just read. The climax is the turning point of the play. Prior to that point, the rising action has developed the conflicts (and subsequent suspense) between the hero and his opposing force or forces. During the rising action, the hero usually has the upper hand over the major opponent; he is in ascendancy. At the climax, however, the roles reverse. At the climax, the character who has been in ascendancy (again, usually the hero), gives or loses his control and domination to the opposing force. From then on, the action no longer rises but falls to the inevitable final disaster.
The climax of Hamlet, according to many critics, occurs when Hamlet, the hero, does not kill Claudius. Hamlet fails to take advantage of the opportunity to accomplish that which has been his goal since he saw the Ghost at the end of Act I. Now, because of the play that Hamlet had arranged, Claudius knows that Hamlet knows too much. Claudius will take definite action against Hamlet. Hamlet has lost the control to his opponent, Claudius.
In the next scene (Act III, scene iv), Polonius, the court busybody, performs his last act of spying.
begins the falling action of the tragedy. The falling action follows the climax, portrays the various stages in the hero's downfall, and emphasizes the activities of his opposing forces. Although the falling action still creates some suspense, its main purpose is to lead logically to the inevitable final disaster. The falling action is usually shorter than the rising action. This downward movement is started either by the climax itself or by a closely following and related event called the tragic force. In Hamlet, the stabbing of Polonius is often considered to be the tragic force. It occurs almost immediately after the climax (Hamlet's failure to use the opportunity to kill Claudius). Hamlet believes that he has stabbed Claudius, but that thought is a mistake and the first of several misfortunes that culminate in the final disaster. By killing Polonius, Hamlet provides Claudius with an excuse to get rid of Hamlet.
Hamlet: Act IV
This act begins with a series of four short scenes that continue the falling action of the play. The first three take place within the castle and concern the aftermath of Polonius's death; the fourth is on an open field and concerns Fortinbras's passage through Denmark.
Polonius's death frightens Claudius. The King, who speaks in the plural we and us, says. "It had been so with us, had we been there." He knows that Hamlet had thought the person he was stabbing was the King and fears that Hamlet will make no mistake in a future attempt at murder. Claudius also knows that he will have to account for Hamlet's actions and Polonius's death. Claudius must put the blame on Hamlet and must free himself permanently of Hamlet. His plan, therefore, is to tell Hamlet that, for his own safety, he must leave immediately for England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as escorts. The letters, however, that the escorts will carry ask the king of England to have Hamlet killed (presumably on the grounds that he is a threat to the safety of England). Hamlet agrees to go but of course, does not believe Claudius's expressions of concern and goodwill.
The next scene (Act IV, scene v) continues the falling action and focuses attention on Polonius's children.
Claudius finds himself with a lot of explaining to do. Because Claudius buried Polonius secretly and unceremoniously, the Danish people are suspicious about the death and want Laertes to be king. Laertes blames Claudius for Polonius's death and is determined to take revenge.
The next two scenes (Act IV, scenes vi and vii) continue the falling action with the death of one more person and plans for the murder of another.
Ophelia seems to have been an innocent victim of the poor judgment and mistakes of the three men she loved. Her brother insisted that Hamlet did not love her, and that, even if he did, he would never marry her. Her father forbade her, without any previous consideration of the matter, to see Hamlet, the man she loves. Hamlet speaks viciously to her on occasion, rejects her, and unintentionally kills her father. All three men have contributed to the circumstances that led to her madness and death.
Hamlet: Act V
The final act opens with two "clowns," a word which in Shakespeare's day could mean a peasant or a rustic. These two men are gravediggers who are preparing Ophelia's grave in the churchyard. Their conversations provide a few moments of relief in the tension of the falling action.
Comic relief often is inserted into the falling action of a tragedy. Comic relief is a humorous scene, incident, or speech intended to provide emotional relaxation for the audience and, at the same time, to heighten the seriousness of the story. Those two purposes may seem contradictory, but they are not. The grave diggers' joking, punning, riddle-telling, and responding to Hamlet provide a few light moments between the previous scene (in which Ophelia dies and Hamlet's death is planned) and the scene to follow (in which the play ends with many deaths). The subject of the verbal fun, however, is usually death, a serious subject and one that is appropriate for the last act of this play.
The next scene (Act V, scene ii) is the final scene of Hamlet. As it opens, Hamlet is telling Horatio that, while traveling to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he opened the "grand commission" (the sealed letter to the King of England) and discovered that it contained orders for Hamlet to be beheaded.
This final scene is the catastrophe, the conclusion, of the play. The catastrophe of a tragedy presents the final disaster that usually is the death of the hero and frequently that of his opponents as well. The final failure, or disaster, at least in retrospect, is neither a shock nor a surprise ending. It is, rather, a logical result of the previous activity in the tragedy.
Sometimes the last part of the falling action offers an event that postpones the catastrophe and seemingly provides an escape for the hero. This delay is called the "moment of final suspense" and helps maintain audience interest until the end. The delay, however, is only a "moment," the tragedy must continue the downward motion to the inevitable, tragic conclusion.
Hamlet: An Overview
Plot may be simply defined as the "planned pattern of events in a narrative." This definition implies three things:
Only a narrative, or story-telling literature, has a plot.
The events, or happenings, do not "just happen," but are planned and predetermined by the author.
The events are related to each other and fit together to form a logical sequence of action.
As you have already seen, the structure of the plot of Hamlet, as well as that of most genuine tragedies, may be divided into five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. Each part develops or otherwise relates to some phase of conflict.
The specific conflicts between Hamlet and
Claudius and between Hamlet and himself are often interpreted as part of a larger conflict between man and the forces beyond his control. These forces may be called fate, fortune, change, accident, or even providence. Hamlet's description of his journey to England offers evidence of the role such forces play in determining his future. Unable to sleep one night aboard the ship, Hamlet groped about "in the dark" and found the letter requesting his death. By chance, he was carrying his father's signet, so he could put the royal seal on the new letter he wrote. Fortunately, Hamlet only became a prisoner of the pirates, men who normally were not noted for their kindness. Hamlet's pirates, however, dealt with him "like thieves of mercy" in exchange for a favor he would do for them.
Hamlet first suggests his awareness of the significance of forces beyond his control in Act I, Scene 4, when he declares that, by chance, some people are born with a "vicious mole of nature" (natural fault). These people, he comments, are "not guilty," because a person has no control over his origin.
The gravediggers also demonstrate an acknowledgment of fate. Their job is not necessarily a pleasant nor enviable one; however, they are aware that within the social structure of their day people like themselves may not be able to find another job. The grave diggers, therefore, accept their job and, of course, death itself, and joke about it. In essence, they accept their fate.
By the last scene of the play, Hamlet also accepts the fact that he alone does not determine or control his destiny. He indicates this in a now famous quote: "There's a divinity which shapes our ends..."
One of the characteristics of a Shakespearean tragedy is that often a major character in the tragedy is motivated by revenge. Although the idea of revenge is unacceptable in the twentieth-century, it was considered a necessary way of life in early medieval times. Without the benefits of trial by jury, the earlier medieval societies established their own codes to ensure a type of justice. Avenging the death of a family member was not only permitted but was, in fact, a duty.
What difficulties of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries might seem familiar to us today? Political corruption and struggles for power were even more common than now. Wars were being waged, often for economic purposes, just as may happen in modern times. Cities were becoming industrialized, and the displaced poor were flocking to those cities to find work—and to live in slums, just as many inner-city people do today. Then as now, trade was flourishing, but so were the corrupting attitudes that often accompany wealth. Much of the newly educated reading public lacked a knowledge and appreciation of Greek and Roman literature, which encouraged the publication of rapidly written periodicals. Many people today prefer reading the latest celebrity magazines and papers than the "good" literature of our day. Newly built smoke stacks of industry were beginning to produce black clouds of pollution. Our world still struggles with the problems of pollution. Changes were happening so rapidly that many people felt the same fear of the future that many people feel today. In short, more people were gaining more power and often were not certain what to do with their newly acquired political and economic strength.
The writers of the best literature of those two centuries were involved in their times. They did not withdraw from their responsibilities. They wrote poetry, essays, and longer works specifically to inform the public of the changes taking place and to persuade it to do something about those changes. John Milton wrote essays to support the actions of the Puritan government. He wrote fewer political works after the king's restoration. Milton also used his work to explore the duality of good and evil in the world. Both Paradise Lost and Areopagitica are concerned with this theme. Writing somewhat later, Jonathan Swift chose satire to belittle individuals and practices that represented to him political, moral, and cultural decay. He had been actively involved in his political party's government, but was removed from that position by the opposition. Finally, Oliver Goldsmith satirized the greed and foolish political and personal practices of his day, but he also described sympathetically the unfortunate results of the agricultural and industrial revolutions taking place. Since these writers had studied classical literature and all had admired its organization and clarity, they desired to write literature that was logically organized and convincingly presented with carefully chosen words. They desired to create beautiful works of art, to please as well as to inform.
The Commonwealth and Earlier
for Chart 1—historical overview
Commonwealth is the term used to describe the Puritans' control of English government from 1649 until 1660. To understand how the Puritans became powerful enough to gain control of England, you must first understand who the Puritans were. The term Puritan was probably first applied during Elizabethan times to those men, mostly craftsmen and citizens of the flourishing bourgeois group, who believed that the Church of England should be "purified" of unnecessary ritual that was no longer meaningful and of organization that was no longer able to reach individual members. These dissenters resented their government's imposing on them what they considered a corrupt faith. Parish priests of the Church of England were awarded their positions by being the owner of the most land in the area. The clergyman's payment came out of parish tax funds and, once established, was automatic. Once a vicar was given a parish, he almost always kept that parish. The overseeing bishops were appointed by the monarch. Thus, by the time of Elizabeth's successor, James I (see Chart 2), seemingly no division existed between church and state. Tax money supported the church, and the king governed it.
for Chart 2—line of succession
Anglicans, members of the Church of England, feared these Puritans and other dissenters, or Nonconformists, because they rebelled not only against the church but also against the state since church and state were so closely related. Fearful Anglicans made laws to enforce conformity to the Church of England. One such law was responsible for John Bunyan's stay in Bedford jail, influencing his work Pilgrim's Progress. These laws forced Puritans further away from the party of the king.
James I himself widened that division by insisting on his absolute power as king over the powers of Parliament, which contained several Puritan members. James wished to ally England with Roman Catholic Spain, a wish that further angered the Puritans, who felt that the Roman Catholic Church was idolatrous and went against their wishes to purify the church of unnecessary rituals. His son, Charles I, was so eager to control England without Parliament that no Parliament was convened from 1629 to 1640 (see Chart 1). Moreover, Charles clearly preferred Roman Catholic ritual and began to restore it to the English Church. This period was so difficult for the Puritans that nearly twenty thousand emigrated to America. In 1640, when the newly convened Parliament refused to give Charles money to quiet unrest in Scotland, the stage was set for the Civil War, which began in 1642, between the king's forces (sometimes called Cavaliers or Royalists) and the Puritans (also called Roundheads).
Puritans felt justified in defying the king because they disapproved of his desire to insert politics into religion.
In 1645, the Puritans won the Civil War. In 1649, after some Puritan maneuvering in Parliament, Charles I was executed. Thus, in 1649, the Commonwealth began its eleven-year existence. During this period, Parliament was the ruling body until 1653, when the Puritan leader of the Parliamentary forces, Oliver Cromwell, was declared Lord Protector. Oliver Cromwell died in 1658. His son could not prevent an invitation to Charles II to return to England as king. By this time, most English citizens had become tired of the Puritan government's suppressive actions, which included closing theaters by Parliamentary act from 1642 to 1660, beheading the Archbishop of Canterbury, and evicting Anglican clergymen from their parishes. The English were eager to celebrate Charles II's return. Thus in 1660, Charles II was made king, and the English monarchy was restored.
The Restoration of Charles II
The Restoration did not altogether quiet the discontent that had led to civil war. Anglicans still feared Puritan influence; and Puritans, as well as many Anglicans, feared renewed Roman Catholic pressure from the monarchy. Less important uprisings occurred in 1678, 1685, and finally, in 1688. Even though Charles II's Act of Grace had pardoned those Puritans not directly responsible for Charles I's death, nearly two thousand clergy with Puritan leanings left the Church of England in 1661. By 1672, the Test Act forced all officers of the state, both civil and military, to prove their sympathies by taking communion according to the form of the Church of England. Charles I's Roman Catholic preferences had so frightened the English that they readily believed Titus Oates (1649-1705) who invented a "Popish Plot." According to Oates, in the Popish Plot, Roman Catholics were supposed to have planned to assassinate Charles II and other political leaders so that they could place his brother James II (a strong Roman Catholic) on the throne. Memories and resentments of previous Roman Catholic injustices were still fresh: Queen "Bloody" Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII, had burned Protestants at the stake only a century earlier; and the Roman Catholic-inspired Gunpowder Plot (when Guy Fawkes was prepared to blow up the king and Parliament) had happened in 1605. Once again this fear, based on the imaginary "Popish Plot," renewed violence; some thirty-five people were executed for supposed treason.
When James II took the throne in 1685 at his brother's death, he confirmed some of those fears. In 1688, he imprisoned seven bishops of the Church of England in the London Tower. When his second wife bore a son, many feared the obvious Roman Catholic heir to the throne.
Fortunately, English Protestants found a solution without the execution of another king. James II's daughter Mary, who was heiress to the throne, had been contracted to marry William of Orange of Protestant Holland. William was quickly invited to England to insure Protestantism in 1688. This turn of events caused James and many of his followers, known as Jacobites, to flee to France. William and Mary's acceptance of the throne was known as "The Glorious Revolution." At that time, Parliament was given the power to determine the succession to the throne. That "revolution" provided for political and religious toleration, and thus brought government reform agreeable to the English majority.
Glorious Revolution to Post-1750s
When William and Mary were invited to England, Parliament became more powerful. Two political parties, the Tories and Whigs, emerged to struggle for control of Parliament during William's reign. The Tories' ancestors were, supposedly, the Royalists of the earlier seventeenth century. The Whigs' ancestors had been anti-Royalist. The Tories supported the present order of the church and state and were mainly landowners and lower-level clergymen. Whigs usually supported commerce, religious tolerance, and Parliamentary reform. These parties, however, were hardly like today's parties; they were more like groups of politicians allied to promote common interests.
William III reigned jointly with Mary II until 1694 (when Mary died of smallpox) and as sole ruler until 1702. His reign was marked by military matters, a characteristic the Tories were quick to criticize. He quieted Jacobite uprisings in Scotland, subdued Ireland, and conducted a continental war against France to stop her influence and control. William was not popular with the Tories because of his connections with Holland. The Dutch were seen by the English as money-grabbing merchants. The Tory Jonathan Swift satirized the Dutch in "Book Three" of Gulliver's Travels by portraying their merchants stomping on a crucifix to persuade the Japanese to trade with them.
William was killed by a fall from his horse in 1702. Anne, William's sister-in-law, became Queen until 1714. The Whigs remained in power and continued military activities to boost the economy. The Tories continued to complain until 1710 when they came into power. The Tories finally calmed the war with France. Jonathan Swift became their chief propagandist. These years, however, were not calm.
Roman Catholics were still feared in spite of the Toleration Act of 1689, which permitted Protestant dissenters to hold their own services instead of attending those of the Church of England. After Anne's death in 1714, the crown went to George I of Hanover, a small kingdom that later became part of Germany (see Chart 2). The Hanover kings, who ruled until 1820, were criticized for their preference for the German language over English, their preference in music and unimportant scholarly matters, and their controversial personal lives. Yet they did bring stability to the throne while tremendous social and economic changes swept the country.
1750s and Following
The 1750s began a period of rapid changes brought on by industrialization, shifting social classes, and continuing expansion of the British Empire. One such series of changes has sometimes been called the "agricultural revolution," although that title is probably an overstatement. It was caused by landowners who were still suffering financially from the civil war. They decided to reorganize their land and buy more land to make their farming more efficient. They then enclosed the land for their own use, a move given the title of "Enclosure Acts," and consequently prevented small farmers and squatters from using the land that had once supported them. These landowners began to develop better farming methods, such as the rotation of crops and the draining of marshes, and invented improved farm machinery, but in so doing displaced many of the rural poor.
Along with farming improvements came improved spinning and mining methods. Finally, by the 1750s, spinning and weaving machinery powered by steam began what is known as the Industrial Revolution. Inventions developed rapidly to produce goods more quickly and in greater volume.
Some of those rural poor who had been driven from their land began to cluster in newly industrialized areas to find employment. Their living conditions eventually became so intolerable that Parliament later enacted reform bills to feed and educate these groups. The Anglican Church further eroded as some members realized how the church's complicated structure prevented it from reaching the masses of poor people. The Anglican clergyman John Wesley and his followers broke away from the Anglicans to form the Methodist Church.
Growing industries at home and trade to other parts of the expanding British Empire produced higher-level jobs and a growing middle class. Old, established families were losing money and power, while families with unrecognized reputations began to acquire the wealth necessary to have political power. As money became more important, a classical university education became less important. Education was thinly spread at lower levels to produce a wider, but less educated, reading public, and periodicals, which could be read quickly and easily, were becoming more popular.
Meanwhile, England became more committed to commercial and political expansion. With the Peace of Paris at the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, England gained the two subcontinents of Canada and India. It had given much money to protect the Americans from the French and to promote western expansion in America. The British were truly unable to understand why the Americans seemed unwilling to aid the British taxpayers. Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith warned of the consequences of the greed, corruption, and violence that plagued this period in British history.
The literature of these centuries was politically conscious; major writers were deeply committed to making their readers understand the significance of current events. The two Puritans John Milton and John Bunyan had been active in the Commonwealth. Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost and Bunyan's allegory Pilgrim's Progress do not deal directly with political themes, but they emphasize the battle between good and evil in all human beings. They contrast with the literature written to entertain Charles II's court, literature that shows a renewed influence from France: witty and sparkling satire, carefully structured drama, and themes sometimes lacking moral values.
Writers who lived in political, economic, and social disorder were concerned with imposing order and organization on their writing. The period from 1660 to 1700 is sometimes called the Neoclassical period because writers, especially poets, used their knowledge of Greek and Latin literature to perfect literary forms. One such perfected form is the heroic couplet, which you will examine later. Most important, writers were concerned with placing man in an orderly world in which he knew his position and observed the rest of the world with educated but restrained criticism.
Writers, especially from 1688 to 1745 (sometimes called the period of common sense), felt a public responsibility to evaluate the quality of life, just as their classical models had. Along with this critical responsibility, they stressed the importance of a reasonable, logical approach. Realism was important in describing man's actions and his social position. Finally, a controlled approach to religion was important. They distrusted emotional shows of faith and revelations that would not stem from intellectual examination. They believed that the religious experience was rational and must be observed by the intellect. These four characteristics all appear in the works of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, both of whom used satire as a weapon against, and as instruction for, the newly educated masses.
Writers from 1745 to the end of the century became more sentimental and even more moral. Their literature is sometimes called the literature of sensibility. These writers wrote lyrical emotional works with emphasis on the common man or on times in the distant past. They were interested in supernatural elements (usually to instruct and prepare the soul for death), and in the beauties of a higher power in nature. They often probed the effects of melancholy.
Finally, writers found new ways to reach the public. They wrote moral or satiric essays in periodicals, such as The Tatler (1709), Spectator (1711), and The Gentleman's Magazine (1731). They also developed a new literary form, the novel, describing middle class people dealing with middle class problems. At that time, a novel was mainly a fictitious narrative, a story having no factual basis, with a closely knit plot of epic scope and a unity of theme. John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, pioneered realistic detail and lengthened narratives. Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), Henry Fielding (1707-1754), Tobias Smollet (1721-1771), and Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) are the important novelists of the period. Their novels are still delightful to read and have influenced countless novelists since then, including Charles Dickens.
17th Century Puritan Literature: Milton
Many critics of literature rank the greatness of John Milton's second only to Shakespeare. Milton probed the religious and political issues with a wise and serious honesty that had developed from studying literature of the past, contemporary issues, and personal trials.
Milton was born December 9, 1608, the son of a prosperous Puritan lawyer and amateur composer. From 1615 to 1625, he was educated privately at St. Paul's School. One biographer tells us that Milton was writing poetry at the age of ten. Like many men of greatness, his lofty conception of his destiny was apparent from his youth, when he would brag to friends that he was to be the next great English poet. In 1629, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Cambridge. In that same year, just after his twenty-first birthday, he wrote his first major poem: "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," which he claimed to have actually written on a Christmas morning. Two years later, in 1631, he wrote two more masterpieces, the companion poems L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, which present contrasting ways of living: the active, social life ("mirth") and the contemplative life ("melancholy"). In 1632, Milton received his Master of Arts degree. Then, he spent the next six years of his life in intense self-study, as he felt the rigors of Cambridge to be inadequate. In 1634, Milton's drama Comus was presented. Virtue is the theme of this drama. Milton emphasized that virtue is sincere only when it has been tested and found pure. The idea that virtue has no meaning unless it is chosen over evil or vice is a common theme of Milton's.
The year 1637 began a difficult period in which Milton's own faith was tested. Both his mother and his close friend since college, Edward King, died. Milton wrote the pastoral elegy Lycidas to probe the pain, injustices, and uncertainties of life. In that poem he handled a number of poetic styles, condemned insincere clerics, questioned his own future as well as that of the soul of his friend, and worked with many classical allusions.
Milton's sonnet "On His Blindness."
Most scholars agree that this poem, one of his 23 sonnets, was written in 1652 when Milton became entirely blind. At that time, he was only 43 years old and was still active in the Commonwealth. Milton's eyes had been weak since childhood. About 1644, his sight began to fail noticeably. In early 1650, he nearly lost the sight of one eye. Although warned about the effect of continued work on his eyesight, he did not stop working. Milton became completely blind in the winter of 1651-1652.
This sonnet in substance and tone expresses Milton's first reaction to total blindness.
. Milton: Paradise Lost: Part I
Paradise Lost is not only Milton's greatest work, but probably one of the greatest achievements in English literature. Written while Milton was blind, the poem tells of Milton's concept of the Biblical story of man's happiness in the Garden of Eden and of his first disobedience. Within the story, the angel Raphael tells the hero of the story, Adam, of the history of Satan and his rebellious angels. The poem ends with Adam and Eve's expulsion from Paradise and a vision of the future hope of a redeemer who will save man. This idea is borrowed from the book of Genesis in the Bible and was turned into an epic poem by Milton.
You have already learned that an epic is a long narrative poem written in an elevated style, having a central heroic figure, with episodes important to the history of a nation or race. The central figure is Adam, who represents mankind. The setting is vast indeed, covering heaven, earth, and hell. Satan is a superhuman version of the heroes of classical epics. He is in total contrast with Milton's heroes, Jesus and Adam.
The poem is written in blank verse, verse written in iambic pentameter without rhyme. It contains epic characteristics or conventions:
It opens by stating an epic theme.
It has several invocations to Muses.
It opens in the middle of the action.
It has catalogs of warriors.
It contains many epic similes, or stated comparisons.
The epic is quite long, forming three major parts, each consisting of four parts. In Books I through IV, the characters, settings and major conflicts are introduced. Books I and II take place in Hell, where Satan and his forces determine the next course of action now that they have been driven there by God. Satan decides to corrupt mankind. In Book III, which takes place in Heaven, we learn that Adam, who has a free will, will choose to disobey God and that Jesus volunteers to sacrifice himself. Book IV introduces the human characters, Adam and Eve, who live an idyllic life in the Garden of Eden. Their only prohibition is not to eat of the tree of knowledge.
The middle books (Books V-VIII) deal with the angel Raphael warning Adam about Satan. These books are sometimes referred to as "the education of Adam" because Raphael gives Adam a history lesson of Satan's fall and man's creation.
The final section (Books IX-XII) covers Adam and Eve's disobedience and restoration. The angel Michael tells Adam of the miseries mankind will have in the future. As Michael shows the future to Adam, he emphasizes that "one just man" prevents God from destroying mankind. Being a Puritan, Milton would have studied the idea of redemption in the Bible quite frequently. These studies show up in this portion of the epic.
17th-Century Puritan Literature: Bunyan
John Bunyan was born in 1628, the son of a tinker (a mender of household utensils). He later became a tinker himself. At sixteen, he was drafted into the Parliamentary army and served from November 1644 to June 1647. Afterwards, like most writers of this time, he began to study the Bible, which influenced his writing style.
In 1653, he became a preacher and published a tract against jeering Quakers, entitled Some Gospel Truths Opened, in 1656. At the Restoration of Charles II, Bunyan was found guilty of disobeying the Conventical Act, which forbade nonconformists to preach or publish, and was imprisoned for twelve years, until 1672. Thus, most of his writing was done in prison. He was given opportunities to be released from jail, but lost them because he refused to promise to discontinue preaching.
In 1666, he wrote Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, writing about his own intense religious struggles. The Holy City (written in 1665) and Pilgrim's Progress were also Biblically influenced. In 1672, he wrote another account of his own faith, A Confession of My Faith and a Reason of My Practice.
Three years after he was released from prison, he was imprisoned for six more months during which time he wrote the first part of Pilgrim's Progress, which was published later in 1678. He published The Life and Death of Mr. Badman in 1680, an allegory about a fashionable man who becomes a hypocritical Christian. Several critics find this work anticipates Defoe in its use of realistic details. The Holy War, published in 1682, tells of Bunyan's military experiences. It is a social allegory about Mansoul, a town that needs to be "saved." Much detail is given to the politics of leaders. Bunyan described the perceived evils of his own time, especially the treatment of Nonconformists, which caused his prison sentence. In 1684, the second part of Pilgrim's Progress appeared, describing the fate of the main character's wife and family. Bunyan died in 1688.
Pilgrim's Progress. Bunyan's greatest allegory has become a popular classic in English literature; it was widely read in Puritan New England as well as in England. It is in the form of an allegorical journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, and it explains the doctrine of Christian salvation in detail, which was a popular ideal of the time. It has interested readers as well as taught them because the symbolic landscapes and characters are also realistically described. The main character, Christian, is both a universal pilgrim and a poor, nervous man from Bedfordshire. Because the reader sympathizes with Christian, he is eager to go with him, to solve each segment of the allegory. The allegory is also skillfully told; suspense continues from episode to episode. Bunyan's style is simple, direct, and lacks difficult classical references found in other works. In addition, Bunyan included social satire in his section "Vanity Fair." The poor pilgrims chained by the merchants closely parallel the Puritans imprisoned after the Restoration.
You should understand what an allegory is and why it is used. An allegory is a form of comparison lengthened into a story. Objects, persons, and actions in this story represent general concepts that lie outside the story and are parts of the doctrine or theme being presented. The characters in an allegory are usually personifications of abstract qualities such as Hope and Faith. The action and setting of an allegory are representative of relationships among these abstractions. Thus, the reader is interested in the literal story and characters presented, but he is also aware of the ideas behind the story. In Pilgrim's Progress, the character, Christian, makes an actual journey. He flees from the City of Destruction; struggles through such places as the Slough of Despond, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and Vanity Fair; and finally arrives at the Celestial City. Christian meets actual characters named Evangelist, Faithful, Hopeful, and Giant Despair. This story, however, represents the efforts of one man to save his soul by triumphing over inner obstacles to his faith. Allegory was a popular technique in Bunyan's time because many writers, schooled in the Bible, used their writing to explore their faith.
Bunyan's symbols, things or actions that represent something else, are logical and are realistically described. Bunyan used character and place names that quickly explain what they represent. Thus, Christian meets a devil who tries to discourage him in a very logical place, the Valley of Humiliation. Giant Despair, who tries to convince Christian to commit suicide, lives at Doubting Castle.
Bunyan's symbolic use of objects is usually obvious; for example, Christian, who has become mentally burdened by worries about his destruction, is symbolically weighted down by a burden on his back. Yet these symbolic characters, places, and objects are not entirely one-dimensional; they are described with realistic details that are interesting in themselves. Christian is so weak and nervous that he allows his family to belittle him and honestly tells Evangelist that he does not see the wicket-gate in the distance and is not even sure he sees the light. Giant Despair loses his temper easily and is nagged by a meddling wife named Diffidence.
Finally, Bunyan knew how to tell a good story. He dropped clues and repeated events with interesting variety to build suspense. As Christian asks himself once again, "What shall I do?" or waits for Giant Despair to come back once more, the reader is so interested that he truly wants to see what happens.
Literature of Common Sense: Pope
Born in 1688, Alexander Pope had to overcome two serious personal problems. He was born a Roman Catholic during a time when Catholics were discriminated against; and at twelve, he was afflicted with tuberculosis of the spine, which left him physically unattractive and weak. He nevertheless became perhaps the greatest poet between Milton and Wordsworth and a close friend of Jonathan Swift, an author you will study in more detail. His famous poems, including Essay on Criticism, The Rape of the Lock, Windsor Forest, Eloisa to Abelard, The Dunciad, and Imitations of Horace, made him one of the first professional poets, that is, a poet who makes his living by writing poetry. His classical learning brought additional income; he published translations both of the Illiad and the Odyssey. He died in 1744.
You should be familiar with Pope's important contributions to literature and to the society of his time. Both he and Jonathan Swift were members of a small writers' organization called the Scriblerus Club, which was formed specifically to satirize what they felt to be the foolish and vain studies and hobbies of their age. The members of this club wrote poetry, essays, long fictional works, and plays to convey their message. Their works entertain because they make their subjects ridiculous, but they also teach indirectly because they intimate that other practices are better than the ones being discouraged through ridicule.
This ridiculing effect is achieved by several methods. An author may magnify and exaggerate the corruption of the object being satirized. He may also position the satirized object next to something very undignified so that there is "guilt by association"; a person compared to a dog is made as foolish as a dog. Another widely used method is irony, the appearance of saying or being one thing while making it clear to the audience that something different is meant. Thus, although the simple-minded Gulliver in Swift's Gulliver's Travels admires what he sees, the reader understands that he is not supposed to admire the same thing. Oftentimes a praise-blame inversion is used: The author seems to praise something, but the reader realizes that he is actually condemning it.
Alexander Pope used all these methods skillfully in his two most famous satires: The Rape of the Lock and his longer mock epic The Dunciad. In The Rape of the Lock, Pope satirized polite society by representing a disagreement at a card game among young ladies and their beaus as an epic battle. The disagreement (over one young man's cutting a lock of his lady's hair) was made to look insignificant and silly when given such inflated comparisons. Pope made excellent use of irony. The Dunciad records all the epic games and activities of writers and publishers as they make their epic journey through London. Its satire is bitter and angry; it concludes with Dullness sitting on her throne in darkness. Pope, as all the writers of the Scriblerus Club, was revolted by a society of those he believed to be half-wits and dullards.
Pope used an already perfected poetic form, the heroic couplet, for most of his satires; but he made that form so flexible that it is generally accepted that no other poet, with the possible exception of John Dryden, has matched Pope's skill in application of the form. The heroic couplet consists of two rhyming lines of verse with five iambic feet per line; an iambic foot, or unit of rhythm, consists of an unstressed syllable (marked with a breve) followed by a stressed syllable (marked with an accent mark).
Literature of Common Sense: Swift
Jonathan Swift was born in 1667 in Dublin, Ireland. Many of his religious and political activities and the resulting writing originated from his early Irish background. He began his satiric writing early while a secretary to Sir William Temple in England. He wrote A Tale of a Tub (published in 1704) to satirize corruption in religion and learning. The tale describes the adventures of three brothers who care for their coats in different ways. Peter, representing the Roman Catholics, adorns his coat until it cannot be recognized; Jack, representing dissenters, tears his coat by taking off Peter's decorations too quickly and carelessly; and Martyn, representing the Anglicans, saves his coat by making changes slowly and preserves it according to the instructions given in his father's will. The tale also contains many digressions satirizing critics, both ancient and modern learning, and even madness. In 1697, he wrote The Battle of the Books (published in 1704), a satire in which the Ancients (books written by Homer, Pindar, Euclid, Aristotle, and Plato) win a battle begun by the Moderns (Swift's contemporaries who exonerated themselves above the Ancients). Swift emphasized the importance of classical learning when he compared the Moderns to a spider that spins webs from its own filth and the Ancients to a bee that gets its honey by tasting from several flowers already blossoming.
Then Swift became more involved in Irish issues. From 1707 to 1709, he sought to do away with a tax on Irish clerical incomes. Later in 1724, he wrote the first four Drapier's Letters, which protest the use of low value, overabundant copper coins produced outside of Ireland without Irish permission. The letters, written to encourage the boycott of the new coins, raised the attention both of the English and the Irish. The English considered the writer of the letters dangerous and offered a reward for the arrest of the Drapier (Swift did not use his own name); Swift's printer was actually arrested. The Irish, on the other hand, considered Swift a great patriot. His writing was so persuasive that the order for the coins was canceled. In 1729, Swift again worked for Irish causes by publishing A Modest Proposal, a satire emphasizing the brutal indifference the English demonstrated toward the starving Irish. He accused the British Parliament of cruelty and satirized social mathematicians or economists of the period who saw people as commodities rather than suffering individuals.
As he was involved with Irish problems, he was also active in English political circles. From 1710 to 1714, he was in London in the midst of an exclusive group of Tories. He was, perhaps, the greatest propagandist for the Tory government. He believed that enemies of the Tories were also enemies of culture and morality, and thus turned his satire against them. He hated the unreasonable and cruel qualities of men when they join into groups to gain their own ends, but he believed that individual men can be responsible for their own behavior. He, therefore, sought to persuade men to be responsible and reasonable.
Swift suffered disappointments because of his intense involvement in political and religious issues. Even though he had wanted a bishop's office in England, he was made Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin; Queen Anne disapproved of some of the lower forms of satire in A Tale of a Tub and would never consent to granting him a higher office. The following year, in 1714, Queen Anne died, and Swift's former political activities with the Tories alienated him from the new Whig government.
In 1726, he stayed in England with Alexander Pope and published Gulliver's Travels. He published several Miscellanies with Pope in 1727 and 1728. In 1738, he was suffering intense pain from Meniere's syndrome, causing physical imbalance, nausea, deafness, and eventually, madness. He died in 1748 and was buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. His sense of critical responsibility, his wit, his use of realistic detail, and his easily read style have entertained countless readers.
His satire, Gulliver's Travels
Swift's best-known work is often introduced to children because of its realistic and exciting adventures. It is, however, a satire operating at several levels. It teaches older readers as well as entertains them; it is a political satire, a burlesque of voyage books, and a satire on the abuses of reason and vanity. Its story is told by a fictitious sailor named Gulliver.
In the first book, Captain Gulliver is shipwrecked on the coast of Lilliput, where people are only six inches tall. In this book, Gulliver is shocked by these short, but politically and morally corrupt people who often represent immoral English politicians. Gulliver feels superior morally as well as physically.
In the second book, Gulliver is in Brobdingnag, and is dwarfed by giants 60 feet tall. Here, he learns that he, too, is corrupt as he compares his former way of life to that of these practical, benevolent giants. Swift used the satiric method of associating moral corruption with physical corruption by having Gulliver examine the giants' human characteristics; Gulliver sees enlarged corruption to remind him that the human condition is also coarse and repulsive.
In the third book, Gulliver himself is less important than the travels he describes. He visits several countries where the inhabitants (scholars, scientists, philosophers, inventors, professors) appear ridiculous in their excessive reliance on reason as opposed to common sense.
In the fourth book, the naive Gulliver becomes increasingly disenchanted with his own kind. He begins to worship rational, unemotional horse-beings, the Houyhnhnms. He compares himself to the human-like but beastly Yahoos, who are held in subjection by the Houyhnhnms, and learns to hate men for not being horses. Here, Swift's satire is double-edged; the cold Houyhnhnms are imperfect, just as the Yahoos are. Gulliver is disabled by his self-hate; he becomes too critical and isolated to love even his own family.
The short passages you will read should be fitted into this larger framework. Gulliver learns to be more critical, but eventually he becomes so aware of imperfections that he is unable to feel natural human warmth toward his own kind. Swift's use of irony allows the reader to see that Gulliver's final hate has driven him mad. Swift's style is clear and easy to read, and his use of concrete details is convincing. He frequently used irony and comparisons with undignified subjects to satirize both the practices and the political and cultural figures of the period.
Gulliver's Travels—From Part One
We therefore trusted ourselves to the mercy of the waves, and in about half an hour the boat was overset by a sudden flurry from the north. What became of my companions in the boat, as well as of those who escaped on the rock, or were left in the vessel, I cannot tell; but conclude they were all lost. For my own part, I swam as fortune directed me, and was pushed forward by the wind and tide. I often let my legs drop, and could feel no bottom: but when I was almost gone and able to struggle no longer, I found myself within my depth; and by this time the storm was much abated. The declivity1 was so small, that I walked near a mile before I got to the shore, which I conjectured was about eight o'clock in the evening. I then advanced forward near half a mile, but could not discover any sign of houses or inhabitants; at least I was in so weak a condition, that I did not observe them. I was extremely tired, and with that, and the heat of the weather, and about half a pint of brandy that I drank as I left the ship, I found myself much inclined to sleep. I lay down on the grass, which was very short and soft, where I slept sounder than ever I remember to have done in my life, and, as I reckoned, above nine hours; for when I awaked, it was just daylight. I attempted to rise, but was not able to suit for as I happened to lie on my back, I found my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side of the ground; and my hair, which was long and thick, tied down in the same manner. I likewise felt several slender ligatures2 across my body, from my armpits to my thighs. I could only look upwards, the sun began to grow hot, and the light offended my eyes. I heard a confused noise about me, but, in the posture I lay, could see nothing except the sky. In a little time I felt something alive moving on my left leg, which advancing gently forward over my breast, came almost up to my chin; when, bending my eyes downwards as much as I could, I perceived it to be a human creature not six inches high, with a bow and arrow in his hands, and a quiver at his back. In the mean time, I felt at least forty more of the same kind (as I conjectured) following the first. I was in the utmost astonishment, and roared so loud, that they all ran back in a fright; and some of them, as I was afterwards told, were hurt with the falls they got by leaping from my sides upon the ground . . .
My gentleness and good behaviour had gained so far on the Emperor and his court, and indeed upon the army and people in general, that I began to conceive hopes of getting my liberty in a short time. I took all possible methods to cultivate this favourable disposition. The natives came by degrees to be less apprehensive of any danger from me. I would sometimes lie down, and let five or six of them dance on my hand. And at last the boys and girls would venture to come and play at hide and seek in my hair. I had now made a good progress in understanding and speaking their language. The Emperor had a mind one day to entertain me with several of the country shows, wherein they exceed all nations I have known, both for dexterity and magnificence. I was diverted with none so much as that of the ropedancers, performed upon a slender white thread, extended about two foot, and twelve inches from the ground. Upon which I shall desire liberty, with the reader's patience, to enlarge a little.
This diversion is only practiced by those persons who are candidates for great employments, and high favour, at court. They are trained in this art from their youth, and are not always of noble birth, or liberal education. When a great office is vacant either by death or disgrace (which often happens) five or six of those candidates petition the Emperor to entertain his Majesty and the court with a dance on the rope, and whoever jumps the highest without falling, succeeds in the office. Very often the chief ministers themselves are commanded to show their skill, and to convince the Emperor that they have not lost their faculty. Flimnap, the Treasurer, is allowed to cut a caper on the strait rope, at least an inch higher than any other lord in the whole empire, I have seen him do the summerset several times together upon a trencher3 fixed on the rope, which is no thicker than a common packthread in England
Gulliver's Travels—From Part Two
It is the custom that every Wednesday (which, as I have before observed, was their Sabbath) the King and Queen, with the royal issue of both sexes, dine together in the apartment of his Majesty, to whom I was now become a favourite; and at these times my little chair and table were placed at his left hand before one of the salt-cellars. This prince took a pleasure in conversing with me, enquiring into the manners, religion, laws, government, and learning of Europe, wherein I gave him the best account I was able. His apprehension was so clear, and his judgment so exact, that he made very wise reflections and observations upon all I said. But I confess, that after I had been a little too copious4 in talking of my own beloved country, of our trade, and wars by sea and land, of our schisms5 in religion, and parties in the state, the prejudices of his education prevailed so far, that he could not forbear taking me up in his right hand, and stroking me gently with the other, after an hearty fit of laughing, asked me whether I were a Whig or a Tory. Then turning to his first minister, who waited behind him with a white staff, near as tall as the main-mast of the Royal Sovereign, he observed how contemptible6 a thing was human grandeur,7 which could be mimicked by such diminutive8 insects as I: And yet, said he, I dare engage, those creatures have their titles and distinctions of honour, they contrive little nests and burrows, that they call houses and cities; they make a figure in dress and equipage;9 they love, they fight, they dispute, they cheat, they betray . . . . You have clearly proved that ignorance, idleness and vice are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator. That laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. I observe among you some lines of an institution, which in its original might have been tolerable, but these half erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by corruptions. It doth not appear from all you have said, how any one perfection is required towards the procurement10 of any one station among you, much less that men are ennobled on account of their virtue, that priests are advanced for their piety or learning, soldiers for their conduct or valour, judges for their integrity, senators for the love of their country, or counsellors for their wisdom. As for yourself, continued the King, who have spent the greatest part of your life in travelling, I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have escaped many vices of your country. But, by what I have gathered from your own relation, and the answers I have with much pains wringed and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious11 race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.
Gulliver's Travels—From Part Three
I walked a while among the rocks; the sky was perfectly clear, and the sun so hot, that I was forced to turn my face from it: when all on a sudden it became obscured, as I thought, in a manner very different from what happens by the interposition of a cloud. I turned back, and perceived a vast opaque body between me and the sun, moving forwards towards the island: it seemed to be about two miles high, and hid the sun six or seven minutes, but I did not observe the air to be much colder, or the sky more darkened, than if I had stood under the shade of a mountain . . . . I took out my pocket-perspective,12 and could plainly discover numbers of people moving up and down the sides of it, which appeared to be sloping, but what those people were doing I was not able to distinguish . . . . But at the same time the reader can hardly conceive my astonishment, to behold an island in the air, inhabited by men, who were able (as it should seem) to raise, or sink, or put it into a progressive motion, as they pleased . . . . They made signs for me to come down from the rock, and go towards the shore, which I accordingly did; and the flying island being raised to a convenient height, the verge directly over me, a chain was let down from the lowest gallery, with a seat fastened to the bottom, to which I fixed my self, and was drawn up by pulleys. At my alighting I was surrounded by a crowd of people, but those who stood nearest seemed to be of better quality.... Their heads were all reclined either to the right, or the left; one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith. Their outward garments were adorned with the figures of suns, moons, and stars, interwoven with those of fiddles, flutes, harps, trumpets, guitars, harpsichords, and many more instruments of music, unknown to us in Europe.13 I observed here and there many in the habits of servants, with a blown bladder14 fastened like a flail15 to the end of a short stick, which they carried in their hands. In each bladder was a small quantity of dried pease16 or little pebbles (as I was afterwards informed). With these bladders they now and then flapped the mouths and ears of those who stood near them, of which practice I could not then conceive the meaning; it seems, the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external taction17 upon the organs of speech and hearing; for which reason those persons who are able to afford it always keep a flapper (the original is climenole) in their family, as one of their domestics, nor ever walk abroad or make visits without him. And the business of this officer is. when two or more persons are in company, gently to strike with his bladder the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresseth himself. This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes, because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation,18 that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post, and in the streets, of jostling others or being jostled himself into the kennel.19 It was necessary to give the reader this information, without which he would be at the same loss with me, to understand the proceedings of these people, as they conducted me up the stairs, to the top of the island, and from thence to the royal palace. While we were ascending, they forgot several times what they were about, and left me to my self, till their memories were again roused by their flappers; for they appeared altogether unmoved by the sight of my foreign habit and countenance, and by the shouts of the vulgar,20 whose thoughts and minds were more disengaged.
Gulliver's Travels—From Part Four
When I thought of my family, my friends, my countrymen, or human race in general, I considered them as they really were, Yahoos21 in shape and disposition, only a little more civilized, and qualified with the gift of speech, but making no other use of reason than to improve and multiply those vices whereof their brethren in this country had only the share that nature allotted them. When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common yahoo, than of my own person. By conversing with the Houyhnhnms,22 and looking upon them with delight, I fell to imitate their gait and gesture, which is now grown into a habit, and my friends often tell me in a blunt way that I 'trot like a horse'; which, however, I take for a great compliment: neither shall I disown, that in speaking I am apt to fall into the voice and manner of the Houyhnhnms, and hear myself ridiculed on that account without the least mortification....
His name was Pedro de Mendez,23 he was a very courteous and generous person; he entreated me to give some account of my self, and desired to know what I would eat or drink; said, I should be used as well as himself, and spoke so many obliging things, that I wondered to find such civilities from a yahoo. However, I remained silent and sullen; I was ready to faint at the very smell of him and his men. At last I desired something to eat out of my own canoe; but he ordered me a chicken and some excellent wine, and then directed that I should be put to bed in a very clean cabin. I would not undress myself, but lay on the bedclothes, and in half an hour stole out, when I thought the crew was at dinner, and getting to the side of the ship was going to leap into the sea, and swim for my life, rather than continue among yahoos. But one of the seamen prevented me, and having informed the captain, I was chained to my cabin.....
As soon as I entered the house, my wife took me in her arms, and kissed me, at which, having not been used to the touch of that odious animal for so many years, I fell in a swoon for almost an hour. At the time I am writing it is five years since my last return to England: during the first year I could not endure my wife or children in my presence, the very smell of them was intolerable, much less could I suffer them to eat in the same room. To this hour they dare not presume to touch my bread, or drink out of the same cup, neither was I ever able to let one of them take me by the hand. The first money I laid out was to buy two young stone-horses,24 which I keep in a good stable, and next to them the groom25 is my greatest favourite; for I feel my spirits revived by the smell he contracts in the stable. My horses understand me tolerably well; I converse with them at least four hours every day. They are strangers to bridle or saddle; they live in great amity26 with me, and friendship to each other.
. Literature of Sensibility: Johnson
Johnson was born in 1709 and grew up in poverty. He could afford only fourteen months at Oxford University. In later years, he was also bothered by financial problems (he had a large household of relatives to support) and was sometimes troubled with depression.
Johnson's wife, a woman twenty years older than he, died in 1752; in her absence, he spent his last years in the company of other intellectuals, with whom he conversed. At the age of 64, he consented to take a walking tour of the Hebrides Islands west of Scotland with James Boswell. Johnson died in 1784. Although his life was not an easy one, Johnson's periodical essays (both moral and critical), his biographies of other writers, his Dictionary, and his conversational skill all illustrate a man whose common sense and feeling of public duty overcame personal problems.
Johnson began writing for The Gentleman's Magazine in 1737, and contributed to that publication until 1746. From 1750 to 1752, he wrote The Rambler essays, which had both moral themes and literary subjects. From 1758 to 1760, he wrote The Idler essays, nearly 100 entertaining essays published in the newspaper The Universal Chronicle. During that time, literary periodicals lived short lives, but Johnson edited or wrote book reviews and articles for many of them.
Johnson's own point of view usually affected the treatment of his subjects and themes in those essays. He was a practical critic who understood and respected the taste of the common, less scholarly reader. He disliked stiff poetic diction and thought that much of Milton's work is too lofty to enjoy. He insisted that literature present truth, that it be believable and realistic, and that it be refreshing enough to be interesting. He stressed that readers should feel pleasure as they read. His own taste had been carefully cultivated; he had read nearly everything of literary value published in English. He was a Tory who preferred to be controlled by a king rather than a Parliament, whose members would undoubtedly struggle for personal, as opposed to national, advantage.
Finally, in spite of Johnson's condemnation of his own laziness, he was an energetic man. In 1755, he published a two-volume dictionary, A Dictionary of the English Language, which fixed the spelling of eighteenth-century English, used quotations as illustrations of usage, and defined words precisely. Immediately, the Dictionary was popular because it helped the rising middle class to establish correctness in word usage and spelling. He also published, in 1779 and 1781, his biographies of fifty-two writers, The Lives of the English Poets, in which he gave details of the writers' lives and evaluated their work. He was a conversationalist who talked with some of the most noteworthy English thinkers of that period, and he was a member of the Literary Club, a group founded in 1764 that met weekly and discussed issues. He was a poet whose poem The Vanity of Human Wishes, published in 1749, has the same theme as his novel-like work Rasselas, published in 1759. Rasselas, hastily written to make money to pay for his mother's funeral expenses, emphasizes the impossibility of complete happiness. If Johnson himself was not happy, he was at least contributing toward the pleasure and education of others.
Literature of Sensibility: Goldsmith
Goldsmith's early life is a story of poverty and missed opportunities. He was probably born in 1730, the son of a rector of a small church in Ireland. He would always remain embarrassed by his Irish dialect and his poverty and would be self-conscious and self-critical. He failed to continue his studies both of law and medicine, and he was turned down for ordination in the Church of England. From 1756 on, he spent several years trying different ways to earn a living: acting, assisting an apothecary, doctoring in the slums, proofreading, teaching, reviewing, and translating. If all these attempts did not enable him to support himself comfortably, however, they did teach him much about human nature and caused him to write clearly and entertainingly, without a stiff, scholarly style.
In the 1750s, a need for periodical writers arose, and Goldsmith's flexibility helped to fill that need. From 1757 to 1762, Goldsmith contributed to at least ten periodicals. During 1759, when he published An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, he was also contributing to the periodical The Bee. From 1760 to 1761, the Citizen of the World essays, in the form of letters home from a Chinese traveler in London, appeared in The Public Ledger. In this series, he satirized present-day society by using the detached Chinese observer. He emphasized his beliefs that customs are relative, that one should be tolerant of the customs of other nations, and that simplicity is always best. Characters he introduced in his series are not flat mouthpieces, however. He used realistic details to present characters he liked. Throughout these essays, his style remains entertaining and clear. He has been called one of the most readable writers of his century because his writing is so vivid and fluid. His personality in the essays is thoroughly likable; he refused to be the pedant as Johnson sometimes was. He was not a complete sentimentalist, losing himself in emotions, but he was too sympathetic to be a consistent satirist.
Goldsmith was also a popular poet, dramatist, and novelist. In 1764, he published his poem The Traveler, which states several of his themes, especially on excesses and happiness. He wrote that everything—wealth, commerce, honor, liberty, contentment—has a happiness that, if carried to excess, can produce unhappiness. As a poet, he believed that poetry should instruct as well as please and should be addressed to the public rather than to those few readers seeking scholarly pleasure. He thought that poetry should convey strong emotions and that its form and language should be appropriate to the message. Like his predecessors, he used couplets and broad moral themes and addressed his poems to educated men everywhere. He used conventions such as poetic diction and personification, but his poetry had a new, emotional quality in a more straightforward language. In 1770, he published his most famous poem, The Deserted Village, appealing against the injustices and materialism of the age.
In 1766, to pay his debt to his landlady, he published the novel The Vicar of Wakefield. The plot is very involved. It begins with the members of a happy parson's family enjoying the beauties of the rural countryside. Through their greed to make wealthy matches for their daughters, however, they end up in prison and in disgrace. The Primrose family must learn the danger of false appearances, the evils of ambition, and the importance of moral strength before they can be released from their earthly prison. Goldsmith probed the horrors of prison life and satirized ambitious females even as he heaped sentiment into his happy conclusion.
His play, She Stoops to Conquer, was written in 1771 and produced in 1773. The less successful play, The Good Natured Man, had been produced in 1768. In 1774, he died of a fever from a bladder infection and from worry over a two-thousand-pound debt, according to his friend Joshua Reynolds, the artist. Samuel Johnson wrote his epitaph.
His poem The Deserted Village.
The Deserted Village was one of the most popular poems in the eighteenth century. Its idealization of simple rural life and its sense of a lost past appealed to the taste for the sensitively described, emotional subjects that were popular at the time. The poem was sincerely written with a definite purpose in mind, as revealed by Goldsmith's own words in his dedication to the poem:
All my views and enquiries have led me to believe those miseries real, which I attempt to display ... In regretting the depopulation of the country, I inveigh against the increase of our luxuries; and here also I expect the shout of modern politicians against me.
The "depopulation of the country" of which Goldsmith spoke was the forced moving of the rural poor from the Commons, land that had been available to everyone for grazing without ownership, to recently industrialized cities. The Enclosure Acts were responsible for large groups of landless, "tool-less" poor going either to industrialized cities or to America for a new start. The poem also notes the beginning of industrialized slums.
Although the poem contains a new, sentimental element, it also contains many devices that Milton and Pope used. It laments the passing of an age much as Milton lamented his dead friend in Lycidas; thus, this poem has been called a pastoral elegy. It is written in heroic couplets, a disciplined form Pope used, and makes use of poetic diction and personification. Goldsmith has added sentiment and idealization of rural scenes to the traditional elements. His heroic couplets move slowly and thoughtfully, not at Pope's crisp pace. Finally, his structure seems less disciplined as he repeats his laments to build up emotional impact.
As you read the poem, you should keep in mind Goldsmith's central idea: he stresses how rural self-reliance and innocence have been destroyed by greedy landowners and industrialization. At the end of the poem, the rural virtues—Toil, Care, Tenderness, Piety, Loyalty, and Love—march to the sea with the homeless poor. Even Poetry herself is driven to leave England by the callousness of the new age of greed. Note also Goldsmith's poetic diction in such phrases as "labouring swain" and "sheltered cot." Notice the Eden like description of the village, especially the description of pleasing sounds (auditory imagery). Finally, notice how Goldsmith contrasts Nature with the artifice of the wealthy (Lines 251-264). This theme will become even more important in literature written later.
Historically, the Romantic revolution in England occurred between 1798 and 1837. The term Romanticism, however, refers to a comprehensive movement, or trend, in European thought and arts that began at the end of the eighteenth century. In essence, Romanticism was a reaction—a revolution—against the eighteenth century's neoclassical emphasis on reason, rules, and restraint. Like the philosophical movements of other historical periods, Romanticism is difficult, if not impossible, to define exactly. Specific characteristics, however, can be identified; among these characteristics are an emphasis on individualism, emotion, imagination, nature, simplicity, mystery, and melancholy.
The major causes of the Romantic revolution are best realized by examining the political, social, and economical revolutions that either preceded or coincided with it. You will study these causes and their effects in this section.
The Victorian Age of England—named after the queen who ruled from 1837 to 1901—was a period of continuing change. Although generalizations about the variety of events and ideas that span two-thirds of a century are difficult to make, one can note these specific characteristics: material progress; commercial prosperity; political, religious, and social reforms; scientific and mechanical developments; and conflicting views concerning scientific progress.
Perhaps the greatest political impetus for the Romantic revolution was the French Revolution that began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille prison by mobs of French people—common people and peasants—who would no longer endure the economic and social hardships imposed on them by an aristocratic society.
By this time in history, England had already lost control of her American colonies. The results of the American Revolution had seemingly justified the colonies' rebellion for the cause of democracy: the independent nation formulated its new government on the principle that each individual has a right to participate in establishing the laws that govern him. Thus, in 1789, a significant number of perceptive Englishmen, including many of the Romantic poets, enthusiastically supported the oppressed French who rebelled for the purposes of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" (liberty, equality, fraternity). The English initially viewed the French Revolution as a cause for a new and better life for the common man. English enthusiasm waned, however, when the revolution became violent and chaotic. Disgusted by the revolution's immense bloodshed, England and other European countries declared war on France. This European alliance against France continued until Napoleon Bonaparte, who at the end of the revolution started his intended conquest of Europe, was defeated at Waterloo in 1815. Although disillusioned by the French Revolution, the English Romantic poets still cherished its spirit-the desire for equality and a new beginning.
England itself at this time was undergoing radical changes, changes that could have led to as bloody a revolution as that of France. The Industrial Revolution, begun around 1750, was a major cause of the myriad changes.
The most obvious change was England's transition from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial society. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution changed the working habits and lifestyles of many people and offered them new opportunities. Because manpower was replaced by machine power, some people had more leisure time to pursue various activities. Consequently, the new middle class took advantage of the opportunity for education. The displaced rural poor found jobs in the cities' factories. Because material goods were machine produced, they became more readily available to the populace. Common people now shared many of the opportunities previously enjoyed only by the aristocrats: leisure time, education, cultural pursuits, and material possessions.
The results of the Industrial Revolution, however, were not all positive; in fact, it created new social and economic ills. The displaced rural poor who found jobs in the factories or the mines soon realized the desperateness of their situation. Men, women, and children worked long, difficult hours in unsanitary and unhealthy environments for meager wages. Their living conditions were no better than their working conditions; they lived in filthy, rat-infested slums because they could afford nothing else.
The new middle class, also, soon realized that their position was not as humanly significant as they knew it should be. The right to vote was reserved only for landowners; the working class, merchants, and tradesmen were not allowed to elect members of Parliament and thus had no representation in government.
The pressing issues of the time resulted in a genuine concern for the rights of the individual, the right to work and live in human decency and equality. Fortunately, England chose a course of effective reform rather than bloody revolt to ensure these rights. Under the pressure of reform groups and movements, England gradually recognized and responded to its obligation to help and protect all its citizens, the poor as well as the rich. Slowly prison conditions were improved, labor laws were passed (protecting especially the rights and lives of children), and hospitals were built. Under pressure, the English Parliament itself finally passed the first Reform Bill in 1832; this bill extended the franchise to all the middle class. Although the working class was not granted the right to vote until the end of the nineteenth century, this first Reform Bill did provide, to some degree, representation for many of the English people. English reform, though slow in actualization, was more realistically effective than violent revolution.
Romanticism—simply defined as a reaction against neoclassical emphasis on reason, rules, and restraint—was more a state of mind than a literary movement. The themes and ideas of the times caused poetry to take certain forms, but the ideas themselves are what determined Romanticism. The Romantic poets, in fact, did not seek to create a new kind of poetry; they simply sought a way to express new ideas, feelings, and beliefs characteristic of the nineteenth-century philosophy.
The effect of the American, French, and Industrial revolutions generated a genuine concern for the rights and dignity of the individual that became characteristic of the Romantic Movement in England. The eighteenth century, with its neoclassical emphasis on rules and restraints, had generally regarded the individual as a limited being who existed within certain boundaries beyond which he could not go. The Romantics, on the other hand, saw the individual as capable of seemingly limitless achievements. In a break with the eighteenth-century belief that a person's value was determined by his social status and financial wealth, the Romantics insisted that each individual is important in and of himself.
In the aftermath of political revolution and in the process of social reform, the sensitivities of perceptive people were sharply awakened. The neoclassical emphasis on reason had left little room for feeling or fanciful flights of the imagination. In the last half of the eighteenth century, responsible thinkers began to realize the aridity of life lived without much regard for feeling. The Romanticism of the early nineteenth century definitely encouraged necessary and meaningful expressions of emotion.
Likewise, Romanticism exalted the imagination of the individual. The Romantic concept of imagination is somewhat complex, yet an understanding of it is important for the study of certain poets. As it is generally used by the Romantics, the term imagination refers to the total working of the mind, to the mind's synthetic action. It allows one to perceive the similarity of things, to perceive that everything that exists is part of an entire whole. Imagination is a process of insight and understanding that eventually brings a person to an ultimate truth. Imagination is the opposite of reason, which analyzes objects and ideas and breaks them down into parts so that they can be studied. Imagination, in contrast, is the sudden intuition, or awareness, of all that one can know about something. To perceive through the imagination is to know at one time an entire body of knowledge on some subject, a knowledge that brings one to a new truth. Imagination is comprehension gained not by study but by meditation—by opening one's entire mind to existing realities. The Romantics believed that imagination allowed an individual to intuit certain knowledge and thus to gain insights otherwise not easily obtained.
The technological progress of the time contributed to the gradual destruction of the natural beauty of the English countryside. Romanticism, with its appreciation of beauty, wherever it may be found, reacted with an undaunted expression of sincere love for nature. Though the views toward nature varied among the Romantics, most saw in it some significance beyond its physical existence—although they took great delight in that alone—and perceived it to belong to the realm of the spirit. On one level, some Romantics viewed nature as having human characteristics, of acting with intent. For example, when a phenomenon of nature occurred, the event was seen as a deliberate action that was done for some reason. This attitude was largely a rejection of the eighteenth-century scientific view of nature as nothing more than a well functioning machine. To many Romantics, nature was a source of meaningful comfort; through communing with nature, an individual could temporarily escape harsh realities and could experience both a physical and spiritual harmony with a higher power and the world. Finally, to some Romantics, nature itself was revered as a god or higher power.
Coinciding with the Romantic return to nature was an emphasis on simplicity. To the urbane neoclassicist, nature had meant the precisely planned garden with its neat rows of hedges and symmetrically designed flowerbeds. The Romantics, in turn, were more interested in the natural beauty of untamed nature: the turbulent ocean, the lonely forest, the jagged mountain. In their art, architecture, clothing, and manners, the Romantics disregarded the eighteenth century's artificiality and strove for simplicity and naturalness.
Although the many social and technological changes occurring in England at the turn of the century brought new opportunities and improved ways of life for some, the changes also created problems, such as the overcrowding of cities, poor working conditions, industrial pollution, and the destruction of villages. These negative effects often made the Romantics wish they could return to a better time. The neoclassicists had looked to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration and ideal models, but the Romanticists concentrated their attention on more mysterious, distant cultures. Medieval times became a popular subject of the Romantic Movement that sought out the strange, wondrous, and fanciful aspects of the world. The Romanticists delighted in the medieval atmosphere with its sense of mystery and the supernatural. Some Romantic poets, rejecting neoclassical rules and restrictions, established a new interest in the medieval ballads and their truly human themes of heroism, adventure, death, and love.
This interest in the medieval expressed itself in a change in architectural models. Eighteenth-century aristocratic homes had been designed to imitate the dignity and symmetry of the columns and domes of ancient Greece and Rome. Romantic architects, however, found inspiration in the Gothic spires, the high, vaulted ceilings, and the arched columns and windows that characterized the mysterious atmosphere of the late Middle Ages.
Although the Romantic revolt expressed an attitude that may be described as subjective, unconventional, and idealistic, it also conveyed a persistent tone of melancholy. Awed by the beauty of nature, the potential of the individual, the power of imagination, and the need for human improvements, the Romantics were distressed by the belief that life was relatively brief and that they would not have time, therefore, to realize their ideals and fulfill their dreams. This insight created the prevailing tone of melancholy.
A precise statement of the theory of Romantic poets is not possible, for they were a diverse group who did not view themselves as "Romantic poets." They were given that title several years later. The Preface William Wordsworth wrote for the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (published in 1800), however, provides an excellent summary of Romantic poetic theory. In the Preface, Wordsworth explained the theories that he and Coleridge had followed in writing their poems.
Wordsworth and Coleridge had attempted to write poetry that was free of what they considered the artificial restrictions of earlier poetry. For some time, opposition to the Neoclassicism of the eighteenth century had been growing; no longer were witty poetry, verse essays, and satires appreciated. In writing the Preface, however, Wordsworth did not produce a simple list of grievances; instead, he wrote a coherent explanation of the new theory of poetry. Although not all Romantic poets either accepted or used all the elements of Wordsworth's theory, the Preface does provide a general guide to Romantic poetry.
The concept of poet and poetry
Neoclassic poetry was basically an imitation of human life that intended to instruct the reader and to please him. The characters created in such poetry were to represent, or to mirror, all men and were to serve as examples of acceptable or unacceptable behavior. Wordsworth believed, on the other hand, that good poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." Poetry comes from within the poet's own feelings and thoughts. This concept is shared by all Romantic poets and is basic to the Romantic Movement. All the Romantic poets were concerned that their poetry should emerge from their own minds, expressing individual ideas and feelings. The subject matter of Romantic poetry, then, was often the personal experience of the writer.
Complying with the theory of individualism, the subject of the poem is frequently the poet and is presented in the first person. In order to best suit the subject, the lyric poem was frequently used. Until this time, it had often been considered a minor form. The speaker in such a poem is actually the poet, not a persona, an event, or a narrator of events. He is, as Wordsworth says in the Preface, "a man speaking to men." Many critics object to the frequent use of the first person singular in Romantic poetry and accuse the poet of being too subjective, too self-centered. Subjectivity, however, was what the Romantics sought. They wanted others to experience their thoughts, not out of conceit, but because they believed their position as individuals made their ideas significant.
The spontaneity of poetic creation
Another of the tenets presented in Wordsworth's Preface is that poetry be spontaneous. Neoclassic poets viewed poetry as an art to be studied and perfected; they followed specific rules in writing. The Romantics were different. Many of them expressed the belief that unless it flowed naturally and spontaneously from the poet, true poetry was impossible.
One should not assume, however, that the poetry of the Romantic period now appears as it first came to the poets. Indeed, the worksheets of the poets indicate that they reworked their poems many times until the results were finally satisfactory. The concept of spontaneity as stated was more a reaction against Neoclassic inflexibility than a literal statement of Romantic principles.
The theory of spontaneity is further, and more realistically, explained later in thePreface:
I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins . . . but the emotion . . . is qualified by various pleasures . . .
In other words, the poet has a thought or experience that causes in him some great emotion, but he does not immediately and spontaneously create a poem. Instead, he recollects in tranquility the experience and the emotion and creates a similar emotion in his own mind. Yet he does not simply record objectively the experience and emotion; they are "qualified by various pleasures." The poet presents not what is (the objective view) but what exists as he sees it, as it is colored by his own thoughts and feelings (the subjective view). Hence, a poem is not purely spontaneous in that it does not burst from the poet the moment he experiences emotion. Still, a poem is somewhat spontaneous in that, though it is premeditated, it emerges from recollected and recreated emotion and from the artist's perceptions. It is neither planned nor forced to fit external rules, but it is pondered and reshaped by the author's values before it emerges as a poem. Such poetry is significantly more spontaneous than the structured and objective work of the Neoclassics.
The significance of nature
Among the best-known features of Romantic poetry is its use of nature. Romantic poetry is, in fact, often called "nature poetry." Elements of this feature are the detailed images and descriptions inherent to Romantic poetry. Writers of this period were quite attentive to detail; it fills their poetry with exact objects. Many readers appreciate "nature poetry" for this quality alone; however, the use of nature often has much more significance. According to Wordsworth, nature could be enjoyed for its own sake; yet, it frequently provides a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The ultimate end is some new perception. Nature serves as a starting point in nearly all Romantic poetry. Generally, some scene or event in nature triggers the thoughts of the poet; in nature, he sees some emotional conflict relevant to his own life. Ultimately, the thoughts of man as well as nature itself constitute the subject of the poem. Nature is often a vehicle for the true subject.
The Use of the Commonplace
The Romantic interest in simplicity and naturalness manifested itself in a belief that the commonplace and humble life were suitable subjects for poetry. In his Preface, Wordsworth explained that the principal purpose in writing the poems in Lyrical Ballads was "to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them . . . in a selection of language really used by men . . . " A popular Romantic theory was that those who lived close to nature were more innocent than the people who were corrupted by society. This concept of the noble savage goes back to the Renaissance and appears in nearly all Romantic-type writing.
The concept of the innocence of life untainted by society has been greatly criticized for its naiveté; even some of the Romantics refused to use rustic people and settings as subjects. Wordsworth's intention, however, was not simply to present commonplace subjects exactly as they are found. The preceding statement from his Preface continues to say, ". . . at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect . . ." The purpose of using the commonplace in poetry was to add freshness, to show that even in the most trivial elements of life, the human mind and heart can experience wonder.
The Use of the Supernatural
At the other end of the spectrum, the Romantics also made use of the supernatural. The poet would use unnatural, unfamiliar events—often from the medieval past—to create a sense of wonder. At the same time, some poets explored those unusual experiences—such as mesmerism—that others considered foolish or trivial. Those who used such subject matter responded to the social situation in which new possibilities were present. They viewed nothing as unworthy of exploration. Sometimes this proved unfortunate, yet at other times, it may have been beneficial. Whatever the result, the goal was to achieve a sense of newness and wonder in poetry.
The variety of Victorian thought and lifestyles rests primarily on the dramatic contrast between the period's welcomed prosperity and undesirable poverty. In 1851, England hosted the "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations," a magnificent tribute to the progress and prosperity resulting from the Industrial Revolution. Approximately six million people from England and the rest of the world attended the splendid exhibition in London's Crystal Palace, an architectural giant of iron and glass built for the occasion. A contrasting attitude toward industrialism was presented by Charles Dickens in his 1854 publication of Hard Times, a novel that condemns the undeniable evils wrought by industrial progress. Dickens described a town that symbolized the effects of industry:
It was a town of machinery and chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of buildings full of windows where there was a rattling and trembling all day long . . . [The town was] inhabited by people . . . who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow.
Revolutionized by the use of new kinds of machinery and by advanced means of operating it, industry provided a previously unparalleled source of material prosperity for England's rising middle class in the first half of the Victorian Age. The leaders of industry—owners of the factories and mines—luxuriated in the fine lifestyle that their money could buy. At the same time, this powerful middle class established strict standards of what was "proper and right." Victorian conduct was based on a confident and seemingly inflexible adherence to the virtues of self-reliance, industriousness, temperance, propriety, and moral sincerity. In brief, the major Victorian principle was a practical one: hard, honest work was an honorable means of success.
Not only did individuals experience prosperity during the Victorian Age; the country itself was in a comfortable position. During the nineteenth century, England enjoyed long periods of international peace and established itself as one of the greatest commercial empires in the modern world. In that century of expansion, England gained control of the Suez Canal and either acquired or developed territories in Egypt, India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa.
One of the major contributions to the Victorian "golden age" came from the field of science. Technological inventions and intellectual developments revolutionized not only industry but also medicine, communication, transportation, and traditional philosophies and beliefs. Some scientific theories led to confusion for the common people. Many sincere people believed that they had only three alternatives: to live in doubt, to reject science completely, or to abandon their faith completely. This dilemma initiated the sense of doubt, not only of religion but of many traditional beliefs and values, that characterized the second half of the Victorian Age.
The first half of the Victorian Age, however, knew no such doubt. It was an era of progress and prosperity and of confidence and optimism.
Not all of Victorian England's citizens enjoyed the benefits of progress; indeed, some keenly felt its cruel sting. The poor barely survived. The working conditions and the living conditions of the laborers were deplorably inhumane and presented a sharp contrast with the material well-being of the middle class. Reforms came very slowly.
The social and economic ills of Victorian England were rooted in a kind of political poverty, or deprivation. Denied the right to vote, the lower classes had no effective means of helping themselves and had to rely on the good intentions and actions of groups and writers that advocated reform. The Victorian era is characterized by harsh political conflicts between the liberal Whig Party and the conservative Tory Party to win credit for improving the social, economic, and political conditions of all English citizens. Finally, Parliament extended the franchise to urban laborers in 1867 and to agricultural workers in 1885. Because of these acts and subsequent political reforms, England was well established as a modern democracy by the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century.
Perhaps the most destructive poverty that England experienced in the nineteenth century was not material, but spiritual. Thomas Carlyle, a respected essayist and critic of the early Victorian era, had warned of the devastating effects of the Industrial Revolution: "Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also . . . Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand."
The Victorian Age of variety and contrasts demanded prudence—the ability to judge soundly and to act sensibly—of the individual who desired to succeed personally and publicly. Certainly, England had a model of such prudence in the person of her queen, Victoria. Succeeding to the throne when she was only eighteen, Victoria acknowledged her youth and inexperience but expressed confidence that "few have more real good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have." Indeed, in her sixty-four-year reign, she illustrated that her confidence had been well founded.
As a child, Victoria had been imbued with the virtues of proper social conduct. As a woman, she practiced these virtues in her court and in her home. A capable sovereign and a dedicated wife and mother of nine children, Victoria deserved and received the respect, love, and loyalty of her subjects.
The Victorian writers were contemporary; they wrote about the current social problems and philosophies that marked the complex variety of the age. In general, the Victorian writers looked to the present, rather than the past, and sought ways to comment on it or to improve it. Thus, the typical Victorian writer was realistic, objective, didactic, moralistic, and purposeful.
The Romantic Age was primarily an age of poetry; the Victorian Age was primarily an age of prose. Although you will not study Victorian prose in this unit, you should become familiar with its types and significant authors.
Victorian essays offer serious critical evaluations of the period. Although the major essayists—Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Matthew Arnold, John Henry Newman, and John Ruskin—differed in personalities, backgrounds, subjects, and styles, they were similar in their goal: to analyze and help solve the problems of their day.
The dominant literary form of the Victorian Age is usually considered the novel. Public libraries, improved and cheaper-to-run printing presses, and novels published in inexpensive monthly paperbacks or by installments in magazines provided the eager public with easy access to the talents of the Victorian novelists.
Although Victorian novelists offered a wide variety of subjects and attitudes, many of them concentrated on the issues of the nineteenth century. Chief among those who exposed and protested present problems was Charles Dickens. To suppose, however, that Dickens was simply a contemporary protester would be a mistake. An imaginative genius, Dickens created versatile characters and stories that attracted universal concern and interest. Your education should include the reading of such Dickens classics as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities to become acquainted with some of the most colorful characters in English literature.
William Makepeace Thackeray was a novelist who shared Dickens's purpose but not his approach. Thackeray's subjects, unlike Dickens, were drawn from the more advantaged middle class. His intent, however, was to expose the inequalities and hypocrisies of his society. One of his best-known works is Vanity Fair, a Novel without a Hero (not to be confused with the "Vanity Fair" of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress).
Another novelist who discussed contemporary social and moral issues was Mary Ann Evans. Writing and publishing under the pen name of George Eliot, she is best known for the novels Adam Bede, Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner.
Eliot was not the only woman novelist of the period. All three Bronte sisters—Charlotte, Anne, and Emily—wrote novels that were widely read. Charlotte (author of Jane Eyre) and Emily (author of Wuthering Heights) are best known for their depiction of English rural life. Anne, the youngest, wrote poetry and two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Relying heavily on personal experience and emotion, the Brontes created novels that are exciting, touching, and imaginative.
Certainly, the Victorian novel is the genre that most dramatically illustrates the variety—of characters, settings, narratives, and authors themselves—characteristic of the age.
That the Victorian Age is often considered the age of the novel does not minimize the era's poetic contribution. The Victorian poets more than adequately compensated for their relatively small quantity with superb quality.
To cope with the contrast between progress and prosperity on the one hand and social and spiritual questions on the other, poets of the Victorian Age frequently experienced what today is often called an "identity problem." Indeed, the position and role of the poet in society was one of the dominant themes in Victorian poetry. In an age that tended to evaluate according to contributions made toward progress or solutions, the poet needed to have a purpose or a function. Sometimes he was viewed as a prophet who was to project the present into a balanced perspective with the future. At other times, the poet was viewed as a teacher who was to instruct his readers in proper behavior and social values. The roles of the poet were demanding and sometimes frustrating. Frequently the poet, concerned about his roles but not completely confident that he could fulfill them, felt isolated from the society he was supposed to help improve.
Victorian poetry exhibits a variety of techniques and themes. The age is characterized by the development and use of symbols, by the growth of the dramatic monologue, by an interest in tragedy, and by a continuation of the Romantic interest in nature and the medieval. Of course, Victorian poetry depends primarily on themes realistically related to contemporary subjects: science, technology, religion, and reform.
Romantic Poets: Wordsworth (1770-1850)
William Wordsworth was the most influential of the Romantic poets. His Preface to Lyrical Ballads, as you have seen, provides the basic statement of the Romantic Movement.
William Wordsworth was born April 7, 1770, in West Cumberland, the second of five children. After the death of his mother, Wordsworth, at the age of eight, was sent to Hawkshead School in England's picturesque Lake District, an area known for its splendid landscape. Here Wordsworth acquired the deep appreciation for nature that was to remain with him and sustain him for the remainder of his life.
In 1787, Wordsworth went to St. John's College, Cambridge, but because he was not interested in the studies there, he received a degree without honor in 1791. He then traveled to France where he became committed to the revolutionary cause, but he returned to England when his funds were depleted.
Wordsworth lived with his sister Dorothy for several years, during which time he met Coleridge. Wordsworth married in 1802 and had five children. In 1813, he was appointed a stamp-distributor, a position that helped solve his financial problems. In 1843, he was made poet laureate of England. In his later years, Wordsworth grew disillusioned with his Romantic ideals and became a part of the very society he and other Romantics had criticized. Wordsworth died in 1850 at the age of eighty.
Wordsworth's poetic career is divided into two periods. The first period, the years prior to 1807, was the more productive and successful and resulted in the poetry for which Wordsworth is best known.
Though technically of this first period, Wordsworth's earliest work, Descriptive Sketches, published in 1793, is conventional and exhibits little of the talent Wordsworth was to develop. Not until 1798 and the publication of Lyrical Ballads was the poetry typical of Wordsworth evident. This volume of poetry, published in three editions, and his 1807 publication of Poems in Two Volumes comprise Wordsworth's best writing. During this first period of his career, Wordsworth experienced the deep commitment to Romantic thought, to the new poetry, and to the new potential of mankind. The poetry was original and enthusiastic.
By the later part of his career, the poet had grown disillusioned with the values and hopes of Romanticism. He was beset by doubts of the validity of his early beliefs and poems. Many things contributed to this disillusionment: the failure of the French Revolution; his inability to experience the passion of youth; the death of his brother; his alienation from Coleridge; and the inevitable acceptance of life's realities that comes with age. Some poetry of this period exhibits the intense feelings typical of the earlier poetry; however, much of it either questions his changing attitudes or supports the kind of conventional behavior and thought that characterized his personal life in his later years. Although the excitement of youth is gone in this second period, many readers find satisfaction in its writings. As a Romantic poet, however, Wordsworth was more successful in his early poetry.
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey
This poem, usually referred to as "Tintern Abbey," is probably Wordsworth's best-known work. The abbey referred to in the title, though not mentioned in the poem, is the ruin of the beautiful, medieval Tintern Abbey located in a valley at the edge of the Wye River near Southeastern Wales. Published in 1798 in Lyrical Ballads, "Tintern Abbey" tells of the poet's thoughts upon a return visit to the Wye valley, an area he had first visited five years earlier. The poem examines Wordsworth's concepts of nature, of man's progressively changing relationship with nature, and of the function of imagination in perception. Read the poem the first time to understand the literal content, the events and ideas discussed in the poem. At the same time, pay close attention to the beauty of language and descriptions. Read the poem a second time to look for presentations of Wordsworth's Romantic concepts.
William Wordsworth: Other Poems
Although Wordsworth is perhaps most remembered for his long, meditative poems, such as "Tintern Abbey," he also proved to be a master in adapting to the disciplined rhyme and rhythm patterns of the sonnet form. The first sonnet, which you will read, "London, 1802," is addressed to the poet John Milton, whom Wordsworth greatly admired. In another of his sonnets, "It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free," Wordsworth speaks to his own daughter, Caroline.
Romantic Poets: Coleridge (1772-1834)
Coleridge was born in 1772, the son of a clergyman and the youngest of fourteen children. As a child, Coleridge preferred solitude and spent most of his time reading. When his father died in 1781, Coleridge went to a school that gave free education to orphans. He then attended Jesus College where he performed well until he became interested in politics. When his academic work suffered and he became deeply in debt, Coleridge quit his education and joined the cavalry in 1794. Unable to adjust to military discipline, Coleridge, with help from his brothers, soon received a discharge and returned to the university. Coleridge, however, never graduated.
Coleridge met William Wordsworth in 1795. The two began an exchange of letters and soon formed the close friendship that generated the tremendous ideas and enthusiasm and led to the publication of Lyrical Ballads. Each poet gave something to the other. Coleridge's intense powers of imagination and his genuine admiration of Wordsworth encouraged and enhanced Wordsworth's creativity. Wordsworth's theories of poetry, his view of nature, and his self-discipline encouraged and inspired Coleridge to write his most appreciated poetry.
Unfortunately, this period of productivity and well-being did not continue for long. In 1810, the two poets quarreled and, despite the reconciliation they later achieved, the quality of their earlier friendship was never regained. In addition, Coleridge fell into ill health and began taking a drug to ease his pain. The dangers of the drug were not understood by the doctors of the period, who often prescribed it as medicine, and Coleridge became addicted to it. As a result, Coleridge could no longer create the beautiful poetry of which he had been capable. He continued to suffer pain and the despair of drug addiction, growing disgusted with himself for his inability to break the habit. Although he gave lectures on literary topics, he was never to regain his health or exercise fully his poetic abilities, but he retained sparks of his intellectual genius until his death in 1834.
Though Wordsworth and Coleridge were both romantic poets and shared many beliefs and ideas, their poetry is significantly different. Coleridge's own poetry is varied. His best-known works are those of mystery and magic, but he also wrote many blank verse poems and more traditional odes. Wordsworth sought to take the ordinary aspects of life and present them as extraordinary, but Coleridge sought to take the extraordinary and illustrate what an ordinary reaction would be. Despite the difference in their approaches, however, both men intended to depict the magic or wonder of life beyond the common, physical world. Each sought to break away from the extremes of logic and reason that dominated eighteenth-century thought and to explore the world of the imagination.
The two men also differed in the way they worked. Wordsworth was a more disciplined man who generally followed his own prescription for writing poetry. He experienced a thought, meditated upon it, and then carefully and thoroughly recreated it on paper in the form a poem. Coleridge lacked such discipline and persistence. Although he had great plans and ideas, he often failed to carry them to completion. Much of his poetry is unfinished. He worked in spurts of energy and creativity; many of the poems he completed were written in single sittings. His works reflect little planning and frequently contain brilliant passages in conjunction with more ordinary poetry.
Coleridge often wrote "conversational poems." These poems were a combination of descriptive and meditative verse in which a speaker reflects upon some past event, sometimes describing the event and sometimes meditating upon its significance. The descriptions are quite specific and precise, unlike Wordsworth's general descriptions. These poems display the romantic theory in action: they are spontaneous statements of emotions and reflections.
Coleridge presented his own theories of poetry in Biographia Literaria, his well-known work of literary criticism. He wrote that a poem should require the total activity of all functions of the mind (sensation, intellect, and emotion). Like Wordsworth, Coleridge expected the poem to assimilate or to synthesize, rather than to analyze. They both believed that the imagination requires one to know and understand an idea as a whole, not to analyze its parts.
Coleridge was not a prolific poet. Three of his more famous poems, which are frequently read today, are "Kubla Khan," "Christabel," and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Both "Christabel" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" are written in ballad form and deal with supernatural elements. "Christabel" is a medieval tale of witchcraft in which the conflict between good and evil are personified by the innocent and pure Christabel and the wicked enchantress, Geraldine. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" tells of the supernatural punishment and penance of an ancient mariner—an old sailor—who senselessly killed an albatross—a sea bird of good omen. You will soon read "Kubla Khan" in this section.
Although the quantity of Coleridge's poetry is small, the quality of his imagery, word choices, and rhythms has been equaled by few other English poets.
One summer day in 1797, Coleridge read Samuel Purcha's Pilgrimage, a sixteenth-century book about Englishmen traveling in foreign lands. He had just read about the beautiful palace and surrounding landscape of Kubla Khan, the founder of the Mongol dynasty of China, when he fell into a deep sleep. As he slept, vivid and splendid images of this oriental scene filled his mind. When he awoke, he began immediately to write down the poem he had composed in his dream. He had completed only 54 lines, however, when he was interrupted by a visitor. He was never able to remember the remainder of his magnificent vision. To enjoy the poem most, you should read it at least twice: once silently, once aloud.
. Romantic Poets: Byron (1788-1824)
Byron was born in 1788. His life began inauspiciously. His father was known for his questionable behavior; his mother was emotionally unstable, given to moodiness and hysterical fits. Byron himself was born with a deformed leg. When Byron was three years old, his father died and his mother was left to raise him in poverty. Life began to improve for Byron, however, at the age of ten when he inherited his great uncle's title—Lord Byron—and his estate. Byron subsequently enrolled in a good school and began to make friends among the aristocracy. Byron later attended Trinity College where he began to write poetry for publication. From 1809 to 1811, Byron went on the tour of Europe and Asia that he wrote about in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
Lord Byron lived a reckless life. He almost seemed to work to acquire a bad reputation; he was known for various antics and incidents of questionable behavior. Byron got married, but the marriage was unhappy and the couple separated. The public reaction to this separation was such vicious gossip that Byron, bitter about what he felt was the hypocrisy of society, left England and never returned. The poet lived in self-imposed exile in Switzerland for a time, then in Italy. In 1823, Byron joined a committee to aid the revolution that had broken out in Greece. While in Greece, Byron contracted a fever and died.
In many ways, Byron was an atypical Romantic. In him was a sense of satire and a cynicism not found in Romanticism. Also evident in Byron's work was a sense of humor. Other Romantics took their work very seriously, but Byron thought it foolish to take work so seriously. Even when he himself thought seriously, he could laugh at his possible excessive concern. Many critics believe that Byron's satirical works, which are not Romantic, are his greatest contribution to literature.
Byron, however, was a Romantic. He insisted on the freedom of the individual, he used himself as a subject of poetry, he loved nature and adventure, and he relied on emotional appeal.
Byron's most notable contribution to literature, however, remains the Byronic hero, a larger-than-life sort of individual that is probably a reflection of Byron himself. All of his qualities are more intense than those of the average person: he suffers more, he feels more strongly, and he is capable of deeds that are more heroic . He is so powerful that only in nature can his abilities be equaled; only there can the same intensity of feeling be found. This greatness isolates the Byronic hero from society and causes him to rebel against it for he sees its weaknesses and injustice.
He is proud and willful and cynical; but beneath that pride and cynicism is melancholy, sadness, because the Byronic hero does not consider himself innocent. He broods over some unidentified and seemingly unforgivable infraction in his past. Considering the world a "place of agony and strife" where he must "suffer" for this sin, the defiant and tormented hero turns in upon himself and gives way to moodiness and melancholy as he wanders from place to place in an attempt to escape himself and the world. This hero, however, takes a masochistic delight in his suffering. Thus, the Byronic hero is pleasantly, rather than desperately, miserable.
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
Byron wrote this panoramic poem over a nine-year period, from 1809 to 1817. When the first two cantos were published in 1812, they were an immediate success and established Byron's fame. The poem telling of Childe Harold's journey through Europe and Asia Minor can be enjoyed simply as a picturesque travelogue. The character of Childe Harold, however, makes the poem more exciting. Childe Harold is bored with the meaningless pleasures of this world and makes his journey to escape that boredom and meaningless existence.
The poem is long; you will study only part of the third canto. In the first two cantos, Byron wrote of Childe Harold without asserting his own identity. Canto III was published in 1816. By this time, Byron's marriage had ended, and the self-imposed exile spoken of in the poem applied to the poet as well. In Canto III, Childe Harold and Byron were separate characters, but shared many traits. Byron's readers automatically identified the hero with the poet.
Romantic Poets: Shelley (1792-1822)
Shelley was born on August 4, 1792, the oldest of seven children. His family was of a long line of country gentlemen. Shelley experienced no lack of material goods as a child. He was not, however, the conservative, conforming youth one might expect from such a family. Indeed, he was so self-willed and rebellious that he earned the nickname "mad Shelley." Resentful of authority and indifferent to traditions, he was a problem to fellow students and to teachers at Eton, an exclusive boys' school. Later, he was expelled from Oxford University for publishing a pamphlet on atheism. Shelley married Harriet Brooke. After her death, he married Mary Godwin, daughter of William Godwin, a political and social reformer. Shelley left England in 1818 and, like Byron, never returned. He and Mary lived in Italy until his death in 1822. Shelley and a friend died when their boat sank.
Shelley wrote his best poetry during his four years in Italy. The themes of his poetry mirror the themes of his life: love of freedom, idealism, spirit of protest, and love of beauty and goodness. Shelley, the idealist, unlike Byron, the realist, did more than protest and lament life's injustices. Shelley offered a hopeful solution: the power of love. To Shelley, love was the source of goodness and truth, the cure for mankind's ills. His greatest work, Prometheus Unbound, depicts a society in which the forces of evil are defeated and love establishes a golden age of beauty, peace, and goodness.
Shelley's themes are immortalized by the forms of his poetry. His lyrics are characterized by rich, imaginative power, spontaneous melody that reflects the intended mood, and beautiful language. Most of his poetry is intensely subjective.
The inspiration for this poem was an autumn storm that Shelley had witnessed within a wood that skirts the Arno River near Florence, Italy. According to Shelley, the wind was "tempestuous" and the rains began at sunset "with a violent tempest of hail and rain, attended by that magnificent thunder and lightning peculiar to the . . . regions."
This poem is divided into sections, each section consisting of four three-line stanzas followed by a couplet.
Romantic Poets: Keats (1795-1821)
John Keats, the oldest child of a livery-stable keeper, was born on October 31, 1795, in London. When Keats was eight years old, his father died in a riding accident. When he was fourteen, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving Keats and his brothers and sister in the care of their grandmother. In school, Keats was not particularly interested in books until his last year when an assistant at the school began to encourage him. Shortly after Keats's interest in learning developed, however, he was removed from school by the guardian his grandmother had appointed for the children. The guardian apprenticed Keats to a surgeon. Keats continued to study at night with the school assistant and in that way learned of the great writers of the past.
Even after his apprenticeship and while he was a medical student, Keats wrote poetry. He published his first volume at the age of twenty-two. Eventually he gave up medicine for a career in literature. When Keats's brother George moved to America, Keats replaced him in caring for another brother, Tom, who had tuberculosis.
The year 1818 marks the beginning of the most personally traumatic but poetically creative period of Keats's life. A severe sore throat forced Keats to cut short a walking tour of northern England and Scotland. Returning to England, Keats nursed his brother Tom until Tom's death in early December, 1818. By that time, doctors had confirmed that Keats himself also had tuberculosis. Keats had met and fallen in love with Fanny Brawne in September, and the two became engaged at Christmas time. Keats's increasing ill health, however, was a significant factor in preventing the intended marriage.
On his doctor's advice, Keats moved to the warmer climate of Italy in the early fall of 1820. He died in Rome on February 23, 1821.
In many respects, Keats's poetry is unlike that of other romantic poets. Although aware of the social, economic, and political problems of his time, Keats did not use his poetry as a platform for bemoaning society's ills or advocating reform or revolution. Likewise, Keats did not allow himself to give free reign to his emotions. Indeed, he strove to achieve an emotional restraint and imaginative discipline. Few of Keats's poems focus on the imposing "I" frequently found in Shelley's poetry. Unlike Wordsworth, Keats made no attempt to communicate a philosophy concerning nature and its significance.
In truth, Keats's poetry reflected his life pattern of avoiding dogmatic opinions. Keats's mind was not one that decided on an ultimate truth and rejected other possibilities. Rather he perceived that truth and answers may not be final in some instances and therefore must always remain open to examination.
The one thing of which Keats was certain, however, was beauty—the existence and innate value of beauty. His poetry is primarily a magnificent celebration of beauty wherever it may be found—the physical universe, the charm of medieval days, the culture of ancient Greece. Through his exquisite and ingenious use of imagery, Keats recreated with freshness and excitement the sights, sounds, odors, and textures of the beauty he observed. His poetry verifies his own belief: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" (the first line of his poem Endymion).
Complementing Keats's poetic ability both to perceive and to provide beauty is his capacity for a kind of imaginative sympathy. Through his imagination, Keats could share in the experiences of others. He usually used this capacity with regard to other people; but, when appropriate, he applied it to animals and objects. One may, probably justifiably, theorize that Keats's own experience with pain and suffering enhanced his sense of empathy.
On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
Sonnets are fourteen-line lyric poems. Typically, a sonnet deals with the subject of love. In English, there are two types of sonnets. First is the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. It consists of an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (6 lines). The other type of sonnet is called a Shakespearean sonnet. It was popularized by William Shakespeare. The Shakespearean sonnet is divided into four stanzas. Three of these stanzas are four lines long. The last is made up of two lines, called a couplet. Keats is famous for his sonnet "Chapman's Homer."
Keats was first introduced to the Greek classics when his friend and former teacher, Charles Cowden Clarke, gave him a copy of George Chapman's animated translation of Homer's Iliad, the famous poetic presentation of the legendary story about the decade-long war between the Greeks and the Trojans. The translation so thrilled Keats that he read through the night to finish it. By midmorning of the next day, Clarke received a "thank-you note" in the form of the poem "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," one of the greatest sonnets in the English language.
A sonnet is typically a love poem. In this case, Keats love poem is not written to another person. Rather, it is written about a piece of literature, by which he was deeply moved. Can you identify the problem or situation presented in the octave? What is Keats's resolution to the problem?
When I Have Fears
Keats wrote this sonnet in January 1818. It is one of his most personal poems and one of the few ones in which he speaks in the first person, " I."
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Inspired by his viewing of classical Greek sculptures in the British Museum, Keats wrote this poem to re-create and praise the enduring beauty of the scenes encircling the exterior of an ancient Greek vase. The ode amplifies the poet's belief that "a thing of beauty is a joy forever."
Victorian Poets: Tennyson (1809-1892)
Tennyson was born in 1809 in northern England. His father was a rector who was subject to fits of depression and violence. Though talented, all of his twelve children shared this tendency to be despondent, including Alfred who, though more able to control it, never escaped the feeling. Having access to his father's large library, Tennyson read widely and began writing poetry at an early age. In 1827, Tennyson went to Trinity College, Cambridge. There he became acquainted with Romantic poetry. Though he admired it, he could not fully accept its emphasis on the individual; his primary concern was with the problems of his society. In 1831, Tennyson left school for family and financial reasons but continued his studies at home.
The next twenty years were difficult ones for Tennyson. His works were not particularly successful, and he had little money. In fact, though he became engaged to Emily Sellwood in 1836, financial circumstances and personal responsibilities would not permit him to marry her until 1850. Most significantly, Tennyson's beloved friend, Arthur Hallam, died in 1833. The unexpected death of this young man plunged Tennyson into years of grief and the questioning that often accompanies the bewilderment created by death, especially the sudden death of a young person. Finally, in 1850, Tennyson published "In Memoriam," a lengthy elegy for Hallam in which Tennyson indicates the typical Victorian struggle between faith and doubt. An impressive success, the poem was perhaps a significant cause for Tennyson's succeeding Wordsworth in the position of poet laureate. From 1850 on, Tennyson enjoyed both personal and professional success until his death in 1892.
Among the most characteristic traits of Tennyson's poetry is his ambivalence. The Victorian conflicts between religious faith and scientific theories, between progress and the benefits of the past, between social morality and artistic creation; between one's desires and one's duties, all appear in Tennyson's work. Yet unlike Keats, who enjoyed the process of considering alternate answers, Tennyson agonized over his inability to resolve conflicts.
The function of art is also important in Tennyson's works. Frequently Tennyson wrote didactic poetry in which he saw the poet as a teacher whose duty was to instruct society according to his enlightened view. Tennyson's understanding of the role of the poet resembles Shelley's, who also thought the poet had a vision of the ideal that he should communicate to others.
At times, however, Tennyson wished to avoid social duties and to pursue the aesthetic, spiritual aspect of poetry—such a wish was often a source of frustration for a poet of the practical and purposeful Victorian era.
Tennyson was traditional in his choice of subjects and poetic forms and techniques. His poetry always speaks to his times even though his subjects may be the medieval King Arthur, the ancient Greek hero Ulysses, or a reflection on nature. Serious and morally earnest as well as creative and sensitive, Tennyson wrote poetry resplendent with noble thought, beautiful imagery, and exquisite lyrics.
Victorian Poets: R. and E.B. Browning
Robert Browning was born in 1812 of well-to-do parents. His father was well educated and had a large library. The household was one of great love, a fact that apparently affected Browning positively throughout his life. Browning remained in his parents' home until he was thirty-four; then he married Elizabeth Barrett, an invalid who was a popular poet of the time.
Despite a fragmented education, Browning started to write poetry when he was quite young. His poetic ability developed slowly; consequently, it was not until 1842, when he was thirty, that Browning discovered a type of poetry that suited him. The combination of successful poetry and his marriage to Elizabeth made him a contented man. Primarily because of Elizabeth's ill health, the couple moved to Italy after their marriage where they remained until Elizabeth died in 1861. Browning continued to write until his death in 1889.
Early in his poetic career, Browning was an admirer of Shelley. In fact, his first work, Pauline, was consciously modeled after Shelley. When John Stuart Mill, one of the foremost critics and essayists in all of English literature, accused Browning of self-worship in the poem, Browning was so humiliated that he vowed to avoid the subjectivity typical of Shelley from then on.
Ultimately, Browning's rejection of subjectivity led to his development of the dramatic monologue. By definition, a monologue depends on one, and only one, speaker. In the dramatic monologue, the reader overhears one character speaking to one (or more) other characters; the listener never speaks, though his personality may become quite clear. The poet himself does not interject explanations or comments, but relies entirely on the speaker's words. Browning's masterful use of the dramatic monologue permitted his characters to reveal their own innermost thoughts and feelings as well as their often less than admirable character traits.
In addition to his perfecting the dramatic monologue, Browning is noted for his reliance on psychology, a developing science in the nineteenth century, in his poetry. Intrigued with the human mind and personality, he created poetry that often provides brilliant insights into human character and motivation.
Although Browning rejected the subjectivity of Shelley, he retained an idealism and a sense of striving for goals. Somewhat ironically, these romantic traits helped create in Browning's poetry his most typically Victorian characteristics: energy and vitality. Like the Victorians of the first half of the period, Browning optimistically believed that his goals could be reached, and he worked toward them with joy and enthusiasm. Nor did his idealism blind Browning to the harsh realities so evident in Victorian society. In his portraits of people, he vividly exhibited the evil of which men are capable; he never glossed over the unpleasant elements of life. His joy, optimism, and faith always sustained him.
My Last Duchess
"My Last Duchess" first appeared in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics. The speaker, one of the main characters in the poem, is an Italian Renaissance Duke who addresses a second character, a listener who is present, but who does not talk. As in all dramatic monologues, the entire story is revealed through the speaker. In interpreting the poem, you must analyze the speaker's words to determine what they reveal about his own character as well as the character of those to whomo and about whom he speaks.
Reading Fiction and Poetry
It is often said that art imitates life. The world of fiction and poetry is a reflection of the world in which we live. Although the events in a short story or a novel are not true in the sense that they actually happened, they are patterned after the things that the author knows to be true about life and human nature. Literary characters behave as real people might behave in their situation. Poetry, too, reflects the world as the poet sees it; it stirs in the reader emotions similar to those the poet feels and paints with words—the vision that the poet sees.
By reading fiction and poetry, a student increases his understanding of people both in his own time and culture as well as societies and times other than his own. Stories and poems written by other students can often provide as many insights as the works of professional writers. Each person has something to say. Each person has a view of man, a sense of right and wrong, and a conception of the meaning of life.
Viewed from different perspectives, the experience accumulated by every person can form the basis for many stories and many poems. Creative writing is more than a constructive outlet for your emotions and a source of entertainment for your reader. Equally important, creative writing exercises your skill with words and provides you with an insight into the fiction and poetry of professional writers that you could gain in no other way.
In this unit, you will study the elements of the short story and of poetry as they relate respectively to a particular story and to specific poems. In subsequent lessons, you will study the techniques for writing both short stories and poetry. You will learn to write descriptively, to develop an ear for dialogue, and to connect the separate elements of your narrative into a story that is more than the sum of its parts. You will also gain the skills needed to link the sound of words with the images that they project into the reader's mind. You will write both a short story and a poet
Although a distinction can be made between prose and poetry somewhat like the difference between speech and song, fiction is more closely related to poetry than to prose forms such as the essay and the report. Both fiction and poetry are emotional experiences; both are products of the imagination. Although the concern of the fiction writer or the poet is not with fact, his work reflects his experience. Each life is unique, yet each repeats the timeless pattern of birth, love, and death. Each person experiences the same needs for food, for warmth, and for companionship. Such universal experiences—experiences common to all people—form the basis of both fiction and poetry.
Fiction is a prose account of significant events in the lives of imaginary characters, human or nonhuman. The two most common forms of fiction are the novel and the short story. In a novel, the narrative involves a series of incidents that may affect the lives of many characters. In a short story, the focus is on one central person and one major situation. Plot, characterization, setting, and theme are concentrated into a few pages.
Poetry, like fiction, may tell a story; poetry also may simply describe or react to a single experience. Poetry has been written about human relationships, about love for other people, about death, about the smell of a rose, about the song of a nightingale, and so forth. Poetry can be written about almost any subject, but it is always an intense emotional reaction demanding an equally intense emotional response from the reader. Poetry can be humorous, but the humor is a response to the situation.
This section is concerned with the elements that distinguish the short story and the poem from other forms of literature. Your study will help you to appreciate works that are your literary heritage, and it will provide a foundation for the technical writing skills that you will learn in the later sections of this unit.
Short Story Fundamentals
Fiction involves relationships. What happens to the people in a story is less important than their reaction to the events and the effect of this reaction on their relationships with one another. Whether the event is a natural disaster or a move from the farm to a city, its significance is in its effect on the people and their effect on one another.
The most important element of a literary short story is its characters. Something must happen to the characters- they cannot be exactly the same people at the beginning of the story as at the end of it. A character sketch is not a story. Since events do not occur in a vacuum and since the society in which people live governs their lives to a remarkable extent, the story must have a background, or setting. This setting helps the reader to visualize the characters and their actions.
A good story contains a protagonist and an antagonist. The protagonist is the main character in the story. Typically, he is the "hero" because the audience is able to identify with him and wants to reader more to find out what happens to him. The antagonist is in direct opposition to the protagonist. Typically, the antagonist is the "villain." A round character (also called a dynamic character) is fully developed and complex. He is three-dimensional, like a real person with hopes, dreams, motives, and flaws. A flat character (also called a static character) is not as developed. He is usually one-dimensional and defined by one or two traits.
Even though most literary fiction is character-driven, plot still has a major effect on whether or not the story is successful. Plot is the sequence of events that arises when characters are introduced to and forced to overcome conflict. You may remember that the plot can be charted by four elements: exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement. The exposition introduces the characters and setting as well as any background information needed to understand the story. The rising action builds as the conflict—or crisis—is introduced. The climax occurs when the story builds to its most exciting or dramatic moment. The denouement refers to resolution of the conflict or crisis.
. Poetry Fundamentals
The appearance of poetry on a page and its sound as it is read aloud distinguish it from prose. Poetry reveals universal experience not through the actions of a character but through selected images projected by the poet into the reader's mind. Fiction requires a series of incidents to arrive at a climax, but poetry can be based on a single experience, physical or mental, real or imagined. Neither action nor dialogue is required.
Although poetry, like fiction, must have a theme, the other elements of short story writing are not requisites of poetry. Plot, character, and setting are elements of many poems, particularly ballads and epics, but none is essential to poetry.
The appeal of poetry is primarily emotional, not intellectual. A poet is not making a point so much as sharing his view of the world or of one particular aspect of life. Robert Burns might have had considerable difficulty in writing a short story about a louse crawling on a lady's bonnet, but his poem on the subject has delighted many readers. The poem succeeds because Burns knew how to make an image work for him. He created pictures in the reader's mind without diverting attention from the sound of the words. The sound, in turn, reinforces both the meaning and the tone of the poem.
Any good poet is aware as he writes of the literal meaning of his words, their connotations, the images they project, and their sound as they are read aloud. He increases the power of his words through such figures of speech as simile, metaphor, irony, hyperbole, and metonymy. A poem is typically much shorter than a work of prose, which means that a poet must compress his meaning. Each of these literary devices helps the poet to do so. Because poetry is meant to be heard by an audience, poems often use sound effects such as rhyme, meter, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia to construct the desired effect.
As you know, poetry is emotional, rather than intellectual. In order to discuss a poem, several terms can be used to describe how the poem works on an emotional level. You can discuss mood or atmosphere (the feelings evoked by the work, such as sadness, loneliness, mystery, etc.) and tone (the speaker's attitude toward the subject) as well as setting (the descriptions of the place and time in which the poem occurs). Below is one of Robert Frost's early poems. Read through the poem and think about the mood that the poet creates. How do you feel as you are reading the poem? Are you sad, scared, laughing, melancholy? Think about how the poet uses various images to create these feelings. Keep in mind that imagery includes sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations (i.e. softness, coolness, warmth, etc.).
Imagery appeals to all the senses, particularly to sight, as word pictures are transferred from the mind of the poet to the mind of the reader through the medium of words. The reader, however, does not have to rely entirely on his imagination to appreciate poetry. Poetry is meant to be read aloud, and its sound patterns enhance the imagery and reinforce both the tone and the atmosphere of the poem. Often a word or phrase is in itself a form of aural imagery. In addition, sound patterns can tie related ideas or images to one another or can emphasize significant ideas through repetition. Repeated sound patterns distinguish poetry from prose. These patterns and their appropriateness to theme, imagery, atmosphere, and tone make good poetry memorable.
The sound patterns most commonly associated with poetry are meter and rhyme. Neither meter nor rhyme is essential, however, and free verse is not prose despite the lack of these peculiarly poetic elements.
The rhythm of metered poetry is predictable and consistent, measurable in units called feet. A foot in English poetry usually consists of one stressed, or accented, syllable and one or more unaccented syllables. A poet is not confined to the use of his dominant foot; he can, and does, alter his meter occasionally to emphasize or simply to avoid monotony.
The most common feet in English poetry are the iamb, the trochee, the anapest, and the dactyl. The illustration below illustrates the basic distinctions among these feet.
Metered poetry is frequently, but not always, rhymed. Rhymes are of two types: true rhyme and slant rhyme. The correspondence of final sounds is exact in true rhyme but not in slant rhyme. Balloon and lagoon are true rhymes. Balloon and gallon, despite the shared l sound, are not. The vowel sound of the final syllable and the position of the stressed syllable prevent the rhyme from being exact.
Rhyme occurs most frequently at the ends of lines, although words within a line may rhyme. Other techniques used to emphasize similar concepts through similar sounds are alliteration, assonance, and consonance. All three techniques are based on a correspondence of sound. Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds or consonant sounds in accented syllables. The m's in MacLeish's line, "memory by memory the mind," illustrate alliteration. (Although modern alliteration is primarily of consonant sounds, alliteration is also possible with initial vowel sounds. This technique was used in Old English verse.) Assonance is a repetition of vowel sounds within words, that is, that are followed by different consonants. The words cat, map, and castle illustrate assonance. Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds, especially the final sounds of accented syllables; the vowels that precede the consonants differ, such as in strong and bring. The use of assonance and/or consonance at the end of lines is usually what distinguishes slant rhyme from true rhyme.
Another sound effect is onomatopoeia, imagery for the ear. A word that imitates a sound, such as buzz or clang or whisper, is onomatopoeic.
Poets use repeated rhythm patterns to unify a free verse poem. Repetition of key words and phrases also produces a unified effect and at the same time emphasizes the words. Similarly, a poet may repeat a pattern with different words, as MacLeish did with "memory by memory" and "twig by twig."
Writing the Short Story
For many writers, the hardest part of writing a short story is thinking of an idea for one in the first place. Even professional writers have to search for ideas. Their source is their own experience; your source must also be your experience.
Your experience is not as limited as it may seem, for it involves more than events that have actually happened to you. You have watched incidents in which you did not participate; you have read; you have heard others tell about their lives; you have dreamed. All of these experiences are stored in your memory.
Memory is not infallible, however. Many writers keep a journal in which they record not only the events of the day but descriptions of the sky or notes on gesture observed or a conversation overheard. The first rule of creative writing is to observe, write down, and remember.
Your experience is the guidebook that tells you what is plausible and what is not. Unless you are writing fantasy, the pigs in your story will not fly and the trees will not talk. Even in fantasy, the behavior of the characters and the resolution of the conflict must be consistent with what might happen in that imaginary world.
A beginning writer will do best to write straight fiction and to avoid fantasy. He should not attempt science fiction unless he has a thorough knowledge of chemistry and physics, nor should he set his stories in exotic countries or far-off times unless he has studied his history and geography. If he has lived in France, he knows the country well enough to write about it; if he has visited it only through the National Geographic, he does not.
By the same token, the characters in a story should speak a language and dialect with which the writer is thoroughly familiar and which his readers will understand. The characters should dress and behave in ways that seem natural to the writer and that are easy for him to describe. They should not, however, be copies or caricatures of real people. The best characters are composite characters, with physical features and personality traits borrowed from many real people. The writer need not consciously search his memory to remember the appearance of a red-haired woman or the behavior of a peevish child. He has seen enough of each that his mind automatically forms a composite of them all. He can consciously assign other characteristics to make his particular woman or child an individual.
Plot, too, can be based on experience. Everyone experiences moral or ethical dilemmas, for example. Most people at some time have to cope with a crisis. Living without electricity for a night is a crisis of sorts. So is taking a test for which one has not studied. Doing anything for the first time, whether it is driving a car or going to kindergarten, involves an element of risk and the conquering of fear.
Writing from experience should not be interpreted as writing autobiography in short-story form. Fact and history are not fiction. What a writer learns from his experience is that certain patterns repeat themselves, that particular types of people are likely to hold particular attitudes, that certain situations or conversations are plausible and others are not.
Directly or indirectly, every person knows about death. Every life involves births and weddings, graduations and promotions, successes and failures. Friendship and enmity, triumph and tragedy, joy and sorrow are only part of the spectrum of experience shared by all and yet unique to each person. Each short story also must be unique and yet universal.
Fiction is not real, but it is based upon reality. Experience can be transformed into fiction by changing its aspects. Something that happened to your sister can be made to happen to a friend. Instead of being the age he is now, that friend can be made into a child. Since your friend is not childish, you can borrow some personality traits from another friend's younger brother. The setting also can be changed. With such alterations, the fictional account may become totally different from the real event.
A story can be developed from any of the four elements—plot, character, setting, theme. Start with a conflict, build it into a plot, and people the plot with characters. Some choose a plot and characters to fit their theme. The method depends partly on the writer's preference and partly on the type of story that he intends to write. Action stories depend upon plot, as do mystery stories. Fiction about relationships and the effect of events upon attitudes often starts with a character. Begin with the element that is most important to your story.
To help his reader visualize the setting and characters, a short story writer must be able to write vivid descriptions. At the same time, he must move the plot forward and reveal his characters' motives and personalities, not by telling the reader but by showing him. In other words, he must demonstrate that a character is honest or untrustworthy or whatever by means of the character's own words and actions. To accomplish these tasks he must master the writing of dialogue and of narration.
In a well-written short story, the three types of writing flow into one another, and the reader does not distinguish among them. Description, dialogue, and narration must be smoothly integrated. The best preparation for writing short stories is to read fiction by masters of the craft, noting how all three types of writing are used to develop the characters, set the scene, advance the plot, or emphasize the theme. Your teacher or a librarian can recommend stories. You may also find excellent examples in literary magazines. Some authors to look for include John Updike, John Steinbeck, Stephen Vincent Benet, and Eudora Welty.
Description. A description is not a group of adjectives strung together. A well-chosen adjective is fine, but a figure of speech is often more effective. A descriptive paragraph, however, should not be overburdened with figurative language or made ridiculous by a mixed metaphor.
One of the most memorable characters in literature is Charles Dickens's Uriah Heep. Almost anyone who has read David Copperfield remembers the "cadaverous face" and "long, lank, skeleton hands," a drawn-out description that, like poetry, matches sound to sense. The phrase is an implied metaphor: Dickens could have written skeleton-like. The adjectives unshaded and unsheltered, referring to Uriah's eyes, also are implied metaphors; his eyes are empty windows without shades or canopies. The order of details is important. The reader first sees the cadaverous face, the most striking detail, then the other facial features, next the shoulders and neck, and last, the bony hand. Dickens follows his character's eye until it reaches what to him is most significant, the hand.
If a paragraph length description is given, a writer should follow Dickens's formula: most striking detail first, most significant detail last. In a short story, however, little time or space is available, and every word must work toward advancing the plot or revealing character. A better practice is to sprinkle description among passages of narration or dialogue; this technique allows the reader to absorb a little information at a time. Recall, for example, Dickens' sentence: "I found Uriah reading a great fat book, with such demonstrative attention, that his lank forefinger followed up every line as he read, and made clammy tracks along the page (or so I fully believed) like a snail." The first part of the sentence is narrative, and the last part is a description of behavior, but the effect of the whole sentence is to reinforce the reader's mental picture of a bony, clammy hand.
A good short story writer does not describe each character as he is introduced. A brief, general description may be provided, but specific bits of information are more likely to be slipped into the narration along with the dialogue.
In addition to its obvious value in the finished story, descriptive writing has another use. A writer can use it for his own benefit before he begins his story. To be certain that he pictures the setting clearly in his mind, he can write a description of it for his own benefit to clarify any fuzzy or contradictory details.
A similar method works well for characters. A writer can begin with a physical description and expand it to include details of personality and background. Such a description can include incidents of the character's past life that have significantly shaped or altered his personality. A character sketch of this type is an invaluable aid in getting to know characters that are of particular importance in a story or those who appear as mere shadows in the writer's mind. A character sketch, although no one but the writer ever sees it, is a means of making an imaginary person real. It is perhaps the best way of coming to know a character.
Before attempting a sketch of an imaginary character, practice with a real person, preferably a stranger or someone you see frequently but do not know well. Study his appearance—not only his age and physical features, but his clothing, his grooming habits, and his posture. These things, combined with mannerisms and speech habits, tell much about a person. Hands in particular, are revealing. You should be able to guess fairly accurately the type of work a person does, his educational level, his marital status, his health, and his attitude toward appearance.
In fiction as in life, people tell one another what is happening in their lives, how they feel about particular situations, and what they hope for the future. Conversation is the primary way in which people relate to one another. Dialogue can be used to explore relationships or to advance the plot. Words speak at least as loudly as actions in revealing personality and character.
The words that a character speaks must suit not only the character's personality but his age, his interests, and his occupation. At the same time, they must resemble actual conversation. People interrupt, contradict, and correct one another. They repeat themselves or start one thought and leave it to begin another. Dialogue should resemble actual speech and at the same time be easy for a reader to follow. Crisp, short sentences are best. Questions are fine. Keep the characters' speeches short and make sure the reader knows who is talking.
Narration and Style
Style alone does not distinguish a good story from a bad one, but a bad style will ruin a good story. Unless a writer can use dialect as skillfully as Mark Twain, his first stylistic prerequisite should be the use of Standard English. The subject matter of his story will determine whether his diction is formal or informal. Lofty themes require formal language, but stories of ordinary people in usual or unusual situations can be more colloquial. Dialogue is usually less formal than the surrounding narration and description.
Use correct grammar. Exceptions can be made in dialogue spoken in casual circumstances, especially by children. If you break a rule of grammar, know why you are breaking it. Be sure, too, that the error is clearly your character's, not your own.
Use words correctly. Again, a character can be made to look ridiculous through the misuse of words, but he should be corrected by another character frequently enough to illustrate that the mistakes are obviously his and not yours. Know the meaning of every word you use. If you find yourself resorting to a thesaurus to avoid using an ordinary word, make sure that the word you substitute will be understood by the reader. Proclaim is better than promulgate in most short stories.
Avoid overuse of objectives. You need not be as stringent as Hemingway, but remember that similes and metaphors can be used as adjective substitutes. Avoid clichés, however.
Do not be afraid to use said. Asked, explained, and shouted are acceptable substitutes in specific situations, but none has the versatility of said. Expostulated, pontificated, or even asserted draws attention away from what is being said.Smiled is not a synonym for said; neither is laughed. Smiling while talking is possible but not probable. "I can't," Jack smiled might better be written, "I can't," Jack said through his teeth.
Be conscious of every word that you use; consider not only its literal meaning but its connotations and its sound. Avoid obtrusive alliteration and awkward phrasing. Eliminate unnecessary words and details. Be concise as well as precise. Be clear. Be dramatic.
Writing a short story without planning it first is like baking a cake without following a recipe. If you forget an ingredient or put it in at the wrong time, the story, like the cake, will collapse.
Because knowing your characters and understanding their motivations are essential, writing a character sketch, as suggested in the previous lesson, for each major character is time well spent. A plot outline is also of value, particularly if the plot is intricate. A plot outline also will reveal weaknesses in the action framework. A plot must involve a problem, its complications, a climax, and a resolution. Someone or something must provide the conflict.
Once you have written your character sketches and plot outline, you can begin the actual writing. When the story is written, it should be read, revised, and reread.
Before you begin writing, visualize the story mentally from beginning to end. Be sure that you have not resorted to a trick ending and that you have left no dilemma unresolved. Know the time and place in which each scene of the story is to occur.
With your character sketches and plot outline beside you for easy reference, sit down with a blank piece of paper. Visualize the setting for the opening scene. The first paragraph should set the scene and introduce the main character. For example:
Brushing the snow from her coat and gloves, Cathy glanced at her reflection in the shiny darkness of the glass door. She caught her breath sharply and went inside. A little bell jingled a welcome and she smiled, looking around at the shelves and stacks and savoring the smell of new books.
Note that you know without being told directly that it is winter, that Cathy is nervous, and that she has entered a bookstore. The next paragraph should introduce the situation: in this instance, a new job. The introduction of a new character, the employer, should clarify the situation through dialogue. Dialogue also is a good means of introducing or intensifying a conflict. Narration can be used to summarize the less significant events of Cathy's day and to provide transitions between the steps of the outline.
Writing the Poem
Like fiction, poetry is a comment on experience. A poet expresses his attitude toward some aspect of life through concrete images. He may reach beyond the expression of emotion to criticize some wrong that he perceives. Poetry is a means of sharing values as well as emotions.
A poet writes about what is important to him. Often a poem is the direct result of some memorable experience. It may be a cry of outrage or an outpouring of joy. It may poke gentle fun at the ridiculous, parodying a sentimental poem with an ode to a road sign. A poem also may be written as a conscious attempt to explore a theme, such as Robinson Jeffers's "Shine, Perishing Republic," or as a response to some inescapable condition, such as John Milton's sonnet, "On His Blindness." Occasional poetry is written to commemorate a historic event (an occasion). An example is Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn," written for the dedication of a battle monument.
Great poetry is memorable not because of the theme that inspired it but because the poet was a master of technique. Shakespeare's sonnets are, for the most part, variations on the same theme; but each is an individual creation and many are masterpieces. Shakespeare knew how to make figures of speech paint his word pictures for him. His best sonnets also make use of sound patterns, such as the repetition of r in "Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn."
The only way to learn the craft of poetry is to practice it, but reading the work of skilled poets is also essential. A student owes himself the pleasure of reading John Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" and Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." He should be familiar with the works of John Donne, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Browning, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Vachel Lindsay, and Robert Frost, to name only a few of the important English and American poets.
As you search for good models of technique, keep in mind the following caution:
This aspiring poetess did not heed the warning. She was using the ideas and much of the syntax of a well established poet. As a result, she was doing little more than paraphrasing and was certainly not crafting her own poetry.
Figures of speech and recurring sound patterns distinguish poetry from prose. Many poetic devices are found in prose, but two belong specifically to poetry. The best writers of free verse are also masters of rhyme and meter, for these two elements of poetry discipline a poet and train his ear.
Rhymed verse follows a pattern called a rhyme scheme, an element of poetry that you have already studied. One of the simplest of all verse forms, the clerihew has a rhyme scheme of aabb, with no particular meter. The only requirement is that the first line must contain only a famous name. The remainder of the "poem" is a comic verse relating to the life or career of the person in question.
Adding meter to rhyme makes verse writing considerably more difficult. The combination of meter and rhyme scheme must be suited to the poem's content, theme, and tone. If you fail to produce the desired effect with a particular poem, you may find that changing either the meter or the rhyme scheme improves the poem. Most poets are most comfortable writing iambic pentameter, but you may find a dactylic line more fun to work with in writing comic verse.
Style and Form
Although form and diction vary with the type of poem, each poet has favorite rhythms and devices that distinguish his style from that of other poets. Your poetry should be as individual as you are, but it should not be so different from anyone else's that another reader finds it incomprehensible. Until you can write good poetry in Standard English using standard punctuation, do not attempt to write in dialect or to use experimental punctuation. Emily Dickinson and E.E. Cummings are excellent poets, but their styles are their own and should not be imitated. (Emily Dickinson is known for using dashes, and E.E. Cummings eliminated capitals, even from his own name.)
The form a poet chooses depends upon his reason for writing. If he wants to tell a story, he will probably use a ballad stanza. If he has developed an extended metaphor with a surprise twist at the end, his best choice would be a Shakespearean sonnet. Other forms serve other purposes. If no form suits the poem, or if the poet chooses to disregard them all, he can develop his own from various combinations of meter and rhyme scheme. Many modern poets prefer to write free verse, with no restrictions on form at all.
Metered verse. A well-known form of metered verse is the sonnet. All sonnets, as you should recall, have fourteen lines of iambic pentameter.
The Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet differs from the Shakespearean sonnet in choice of rhyme scheme. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese used the Italian form; many of them introduced a problem in the octet and resolved it in the sestet. Like other English-speaking poets, however, Browning followed the rhyme scheme more faithfully than she followed the separation of thought in the octet and the sestet, and some of her sonnets resemble Shakespeare's in spirit if not in form.
Another fixed form is the heroic couplet, two lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. This form is often used for epigrams.
The limerick, five anapestic lines rhymed aabba, is a popular humorous verse form. The first, second, and fifth lines are trimeter; the third and fourth lines, which introduce a new thought completed in the fifth line, are dimeter. Iambs are common as substitutes for anapests, especially in the first line, which often begins with there was. The last line is frequently ironic.
A more challenging fixed form is the villanelle, which uses only two rhymes in its nineteen lines. The first five stanzas are tercets, or triplets, rhymed aba. The final stanza is a quatrain that reinforces the a rhyme: abaa. Possibly the best villanelle in English is Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night."
Although free verse requires neither meter nor rhyme scheme, it is not formless. Skilled poets realize the close relationship between sound and imagery, and they reinforce their images through internal rhyme (or internal slant rhyme), alliteration, onomatopoeia, and other sound effects, as well as through repeated phrases and rhythm patterns. Figures of speech are part of many free verse poems, and symbols are as likely to be found in free verse as in any other type of poetry. The following poem is written in free verse: